Etienne Lantier, an unemployed railway worker, is a clever but uneducated young man with a dangerous temper. Forced to take a back-breaking job at Le Voreux mine when he cannot get other work, he discovers that his fellow miners are ill, hungry, and in debt, unable to feed and clothe their families. When conditions in the mining community deteriorate even further, Lantier finds himself leading a strike that could mean starvation or salvation for all. (from Goodreads)
This book is the 13th in the Rougon-Macquart series, but the 16th in the author’s recommended reading order, which is the one I’ve been following. It’s worth noticing that each book could be easily read as a standalone and any detail worth mentioning from the previous ones is always entwinned within the text.
It was a while since my last immersion in the series. These are not easy books to find down here, and one must scavenge through second hand bookshops and online stores to find physical copies at a price I’d be able to afford, so it was a rather large hiatus (almost 2 years!). However, even though I had to stretch my mind a little to remember where Étienne standed in the Rougon-Macquart family tree, the author’s prose readily introduced me into the story and it was as if I had never left that world.
This as a heart wrenching story, as usual in this series, in which one is forced to witness the extreme pauperization of already extremely impoverished people, and their inane attempts to improve their living condition, meanwhile those who could change for good their lives are either unwilling to do so, unable to do it without ruin themselves, or completely oblivious to the situation. Considering that for many people the working conditions are still this terrible (or a different kind of terrible) today, made me want to go set fire to everything.
This ficticious story is well historically settled with the inclusion of the accession of the Socialist International and discussions on unionization, as well as vivid descriptions of the actual working and living condition of the miners of that time (some of the descriptions from the inside of the mines are very asphyxiating, and as someone who doesn’t suffer from claustrophobia, well… I almost felt it).
One of the things that strike me the most while reading is that this book seemed to be considerable more raunchy (for a 19th century novel) than the previous ones that I’ve read. Historically, this series has been catalogued as obscene and vulgar from its conception, and many editions and translations have been censored. Since my French isn’t strong enough to give the original material a try, and most of the books I’ve been reading are old editions, I’m never certain about the fidelity of the translation I’m reading [except for that time] compared to what Zola intended, or if it varies from one book to the other, taking in consideration that they are settled in different social strata, with extremely different customs. One more reason to improve my French, I guess…
Over all, I ended up giving it a 5/5 stars on Goodreads, because I enjoyed (or suffered?) the reading so much! And as it was going through it, I could see why, among all the titles in the series, this is the one that’s usally most brought up.