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Customer Review

35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Strike another match..., 13 Jan 2006
This review is from: Germinal (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
I read this (for pure pleasure) during my A-Levels and it was so literally unputdownable that I got told off countless times for reading it under the desk while I should have been concentrating on my Maths and Chemistry exam study. I think I ended up in tears with the school counsellor after I finished it. That's what a good book should do to even the most harded cynic.
The plot is quite simple and yet quite complex - Etienne (Stephen) Lantier is a character from the Rougon-Macquart family followed in the series' other books - particularly "L'Assomoir", which is a parallel book, "Nana", which follows the fortunes of his sister, and "La Bete Humaine", which is about his brother. After losing his job in Lille he travels to the mining district nearby in search of work, and falls in with the Maheu family. Fomenting a strike from the embers of an ongoing dispute, Lantier rouses the miners against the bourgeoisie, who, in Zola's characteristically even-handed style, also have their own point of view. To go any further into the plot would be to spoil a good story.
OK, so I read it in the Penguin translation rather than the original (I'd like to try though since I can read French better than I can speak, understand it spoken or write it), but a good translation should get underneath the skin of the author and bring the milieu alive, not only staying faithful to the original but evoking for English readers the sticky, grimy world of Montsou and Le Voreux. I am reading it in Polish translation as well, to see how it reads in a language which is better at capturing magic and mystery rather than the down-to-earth grittiness of English. This edition was also published under the Soviet regime as a piece of "socialist realism" - though Zola would have turned in his grave at some of the small ...changes... that translation has made to some of the incidents.
Great literature should be worth reading for the plot as well as for the language, and Zola succeeds on both counts, taking up the baton from Balzac and Hugo and pushing on towards the modernist literature of Orwell, Sartre and Huxley. Dostoyevsky created the same sort of racy stories in Russia, and both "Crime and Punishment" and "Germinal" are masterpieces of storytelling that don't waste as much time on philosophical rambling as Tolstoy did in "Anna Karenina", in which the plot got lost among a lot of padding.
Although a great period piece, I have seen Zola's stories adapted into other times and places such as wartime London and the Home Counties, and the failed strike could be seen as prophesising the upheavals in recent British politics, with the rise and fall of the fortunes of the Conservative Party as they try to unseat Labour from power. Good literature is always timeless and "Germinal" is one of the books I would recommend to any aspiring politician of any colour, on how to run an effective campaign - or not as the case might be.
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