Review of Emile Zola’s Germinal
The following piece is a review of Emile Zola’s novel, Germinal, written by Miami IWW member, Scott Nikolas Nappalos.
By Scott Nikolas Nappalos
Germinal is a novel written in 1885 by Emile Zola, a famous French novelist known for his style that tried to capture the everyday reality of people and particularly the working class. It is one novel in a series of twenty that follow a pair of French families through life in the Second Empire of France. What stand out amongst other similar novels is the complexity of the characters and situations that mirror our lives and not simply an idealized picture of saintly workers and evil bosses.
Zola himself was a fellow traveler of the radicals of his day and took steps to prove it. During the Dreyfus affair he risked his career to condemn the actions of the French state, and throughout his life he was pursued by the vested interests of power. His actions in the Dreyfus affair helped turn it into the national scandal it became. For this, he was put on trial for his role and forced into short exile in England. He had several attempts on his life, and died in a chimney accident which some speculate may have been an assassination. His depiction of the lives of the working class won him fans amongst the anarchists and socialists of his time, and he supported them likewise in various struggles in France. The book itself inspired countless groups, newspapers, and even soccer teams to take its name, which continues today. A number of anarchist papers in the United States named Germinal were distributed amongst the immigrant workers of the last century.
Like many of his novels, Zola spent countless hours researching them and amassing material. Germinal comes at the height of his experience and talent as a writer and is considered one of his best, if not the best work of his life. The plot follows a young worker who has to flee his job because he hit his boss and finds work in a coal mine in Northern France. The book lays out his awakening to socialism, and an attempt to build revolution as a massive strike builds in the coalfields. The events are based on real ones from strikes and the conditions of that area in Zola’s time, facts that earned him even more enemies in writing it.
Within the texts several things are useful for workplace organizers and radicals today. Zola explores the dynamics between daily life on the one hand and attempts to maintain or subvert power. He devotes a good amount of time to portraying one-on-ones between organizers and workers, attempts to convince people of revolution, strategy of organizers and the powerful, and the questions, doubts, and energy of struggles. All these are incredibly insightful and useful, and not caricatures or props. Part of this is that Zola does not create an idealized account of any of it with neither a clear path nor heroes; simply people trying to find their way in a terrible situation. Likewise in our time it presents contrast to our own conditions in terms of the self-activity or lack thereof of people in struggle, the perspectives of workers, and their obstacles.
Germinal is a deeply human text that celebrates life through exposing its denigration. Within is an urging to avoid religious thinking about liberation and a critique of power; things which continue to haunt the left and unions today. Besides being a joy to read, it is a book whose issues speak to our situation today even in showing their contrast.