Laurent, a minor character of Nicolas Mathieu Fangs and talons, was once “a desperate show-off and romantic, who loved B-roads and drunken weekends with friends”. This was in 1988, and over the next decade he “began to design massive supermarkets,” making the transition from liberal to neoliberal. “In countries still recovering from a Communist hangover, he would build transparent towers, design malls, chart a future of vegetable aisles, promotional sales and light strips.”
What is called “progress” in the dominant society is, in Nicolas Mathieu’s novels, almost always the cause of angry cynicism. Laurent has resisted globalization much better than most of these characters, but he is still far from being satisfied. His love life came to a head when his wife, Rita, a labor inspector, “remembered that she was free and decided to leave him”. It was only then that Laurent, “who had always been a nice boy, even if he was a little slow to understand, understood”.
Mathieu’s And their children after them, which received the prestigious Prix Goncourt as well as rave reviews in the New York Times, the Financial Time, and other articles in English on its translation last year, was a lyrical journey through eastern France over the course of four summers in the 1990s, as a group of teenagers found out through them- even the deceptions of globalization. His first novel – published in French in 2014 but only now translated into English by Sam Taylor under the title Fangs and talons – is also located nearby, in the Vosges region of the region. But in this book, industrial decline is not just a backdrop but a central scene.
Were it not for its distinct smell of Gallic smoke and workplace violence, the novel’s premise could easily be carried over to the auto factories in Detroit or the coalfields of County Durham in England. “Unionism was not a vocation for Martel”, we learn from the tattooed protagonist. “Until the army, he had never wanted to get involved in anything. But at the Velocia auto parts factory, in Mathieu’s typically impartial manner, he “found himself in a way elected secretary of the works council.”
When the factory is threatened with closure, he uses his fine knowledge of labor law to obstruct management. But despite his past successes, this time all he can hope for is a delay. And he needs it: heavily in debt thanks to the exorbitant charges levied by his mother’s retirement home, Martel has embezzled the funds of the works council. Abandoned by the regular economy, he and his colleague Bruce – a drug dealer in Martel’s infatuated bodybuilding – take another kind of commission in the hopes of a big windfall to settle union accounts.
The couple agree to kidnap a sex worker trafficked from the Strasbourg red light district. It’s a strange twist – but it seems fitting for Martel and Bruce to believe that their own salvation requires the exploitation and commodification of a woman. Emasculated by the closure of the factory, which had allowed them to cling to “the lives of men”, it is as if they were asserting their remaining structural power, that of men over women. When Victoria, the victim of their kidnapping, escapes and (in another implausible development) is taken in by labor inspector Rita, we glimpse her own fears and dreams. Meanwhile, the underworld catches up with Martel and Bruce – not just Bruce’s friends, the Benbareks, but also frustrated Russian gangster Victor Tokarev. Importantly, the laid-off workers plan failed to take Victoria’s agency into account as a human being – and as events get out of hand, they realize there is no turning back. .
It is control, Martel finds, that is most impossible to maintain in the modern world. For him, trade unionism is not “a question of justice or truth, but of saving the interests of his comrades”. But, in his ideals at least, Martel’s notion of the “advantages” of being a shop steward is imbued with a sense of class equality. He particularly appreciates the possibility of talking to management on an equal footing, as if the disparity in payslips no longer matters.
Meanwhile, Labor Inspector Rita is waging her own version of the same fight. At first glance, she does it more consciously – but Mathieu is not a writer who creates principled heroes. When she crashes her car – like her owner, a struggling retro model in the modern world – Rita threatens the garage with a workplace inspection if the repair costs aren’t significantly reduced. “Rita wouldn’t have been bothered to have her piece of the pie either,” we are told. “She took no pleasure in being more holy than you. She didn’t hate money. But – and this was her big deal – it still made her angry. At her age, she still found herself raging against the state of the world.
As a prologue set in Algeria in 1961 explains, “every man has had his martyrs; each has found ways to justify their crimes. Bruce’s grandfather, a veteran of the far-right OAS (a paramilitary network run by dissident generals who tried to block Algerian independence) passed on his damage to his children and grandchildren, while the family de Rita fled fascism in 1930s Spain. References to these two wars are more than an added color – each of Mathieu’s loners and misfits is caught between the imperative to confront brutal forces head-on. companies, like in Spain, and their own failure to understand the changing world around them, like the black feet, white settlers in Algeria.
Mathieu’s portrayal of the French workplace is not free from clichés. The male dominated workforce speaks in obscene and sexist language from the HR boss. The CGT – the trade union confederation historically affiliated with the Communist Party – is described as “hawkish, extreme”. Workplace activists, indeed, are referred to with condescension. But what sets the author apart from his few contemporaries who have attempted to write about unions is his remarkable understanding of the architecture of industrial relations, both figuratively and literally. This even includes relations between the CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail) and the CFDT (Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail) and FO (Force Ouvrière) federations:
Now Velocia’s last three temporary workers stood in front of the coffee machine, watching the factory staff meeting, which they had not been invited to. They could see men seated on chairs and boxes, with Martel standing behind his metal desk. For the moment, the secretary of the works council was listening, not speaking. Every now and then one of the men would cry out and they could hear the muffled echoes of his rage. Everyone had their turn to speak, and waves seemed to pass through the assembled workers. A hand was raised, several mouths opened. They saw Leon Michel get up: he had been there for thirty years, so of course he would have a lot to say about it. Pierrot Cunin, who had been a delegate in the 1970s, the kind of man who knows everything and understands nothing, bellowing with his strong accent that a strike was the only solution. The interim workers tried to find out who was saying what, but their view was blocked by election posters that covered the glass walls. Alongside the CGT. The CFDT is there to protect you. The FO is by your side.
This glass desk was originally built for management oversight – but the air of mystery surrounding their “secret goldfish bowl meetings” gives workers a stimulating, but delusional, sense of empowerment. It is located in the oldest part of the factory: “Their predecessors had fought and served slavery there. Men were dead. It is the spatial environment and the institutional history of workers, as well as their jobs and union activity, that have enabled them to maintain “the lives of men” even when the demands of profit replace their basic dignity. Despite all Mathieu’s cynicism, he never suggests that the dispossessed should simply accept their fate: as he does so evident in the sepia backdrops of And their children after them, even his most compromised characters have too much vitality and potential for that. “The capital had won in the end, concedes the aging activist Cunin: what pained him the most is not being able to pass the torch.
As the layoff forces Velocia workers to catch up with the world around them, Mathieu offers humorous, but grim warnings about what this world has to offer. Like Laurent and Cunin, these are delivered in brief digressions in the minds of secondary characters. A hired thug beats up Martel and then informs him that “with globalization, being self-employed is not the way it used to be” – his own job gives him “a gross profit margin of 80 to 100 percent”. Higher up in the gangster hierarchy, Victor Tokarev continues to read the same magazine article about a business school graduate who sacrificed his life for his job. “This young man trapped in a multinational, that was him. He had sacrificed everything – his life, his time, his energy – to succeed, to become someone. And yet, in the end, he was sleeping two hours a night, biting his nails, and expecting the sky to crumble every time his phone rang. And all this for what ? He had forgotten.