Friday, March 15, 2013

Germinal, by Emile Zola

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Emile Zola’s Germinal is a bustling, sprawling piece of social realism written in the service of justice, but without compromising its status as great art. Zola shows all sides of a terrible  struggle, without making any moral judgements. 

Recently my grandmother gave me a tattered old Penguin edition of Emile Zola’s Germinal. She said she’d read it several times over the years and nominated it as one of her favourites. My first Zola experience was with Nana (1880), which was not successful. I lasted about 100 pages, but was in my early twenties and may not have been ready for it. Twenty years later in my early forties I read Au Bonheur des Dames (1883), or The Ladies Delight. I really enjoyed this clever dissection of consumerist society. It seemed so ahead of its time, this gripping novel about the goings on in a big department store.

(1885) is considered Zola’s masterpiece, and it’s hard to disagree. The novel covers a miner’s strike in Northern France in the 1860s, in the mining town of Montsou. Etienne Lantier arrives in town after being sacked from a previous job, meets the old miner Bonnemort, finds work himself in the mine, and ends up staying with the Maheu family. Much of Germinal’s political discourse hangs on the shoulders of this character, who quickly embraces socialism and reads a lot of working class literature. Etienne Lantier eventually finds himself leader of a miner’s strike. Once the strike is underway, things soon descend into chaos, vandalism, murder and other crimes. The revolt is finally squashed by the military, after many families have lost their members to violence and starvation. Even though the miners lose out at the end, Zola finishes with a surprisingly positive final note: monumental struggles of this nature germinate in the first stages of revolt, and this defeat for the miners is simply the seed from which ultimate victory will eventually grow.

The brilliance of Germinal is its ability to contain so much chaos, bustle and disorder within the novel’s parameters. Zola doesn’t simplify this great miner’s revolt by creating good guys and bad guys, or by making some motives pure and others venal or corrupt. The capitalists are shown their good and bad side, as are the labourers. Zola shows every single shade of psychological complexity as his characters are put through extreme events. There are no heroes or villians in Germinal, just messy lives struggling to improve their lot.

Closing the last page of Germinal I was filled with a deep admiration for Zola’s commitment to making his art serve the cause of justice, without compromising either.

Germinal, by Emile Zola.  Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9780140447422  RRP: $9.95