Germinal, (1885) by Emile Zola, is the thirteenth novel in his twenty-volume series Les Rougon-Macquart, but it’s the first that I have read by this great French writer. The realism of this story of a miners’ strike in the 1860s in northern France is stunning.
In this Sensational Snippet, the strike has got out of control. A small contingent of soldiers are guarding Belgian scabs in the pit and the strikers are attacking them with stones and bricks. Zola – whose sympathies throughout this novel are with the miners and their cause – shows that things are never as simple as they seem afterwards in the cold light of day:
The little squad was nearly lost to sight under the hail of stones. Fortunately they landed too high and merely pitted the wall above. What was to be done? For a moment the captain considered retreating into the buildings, but the very thought of showing his back to the mob made his pale face flush – and in any case it was no longer practicable, for if they made the slightest movement they would be lynched. A brick had just broken the peak of his cap and blood was trickling down his forehead. Several of his men were wounded, and he realized that they were at the end of their tether and had reached the stage of instinctive self-defence when they would no longer obey their superiors. The sergeant had let out an oath when his shoulder had nearly been put out and his skin bruised by a heavy thud that sounded like a dolly banging the washing. The recruit had been grazed in two places, his thumb was smashed and his right knee was smarting: how much longer were they going to put up with this? One brick had bounced up and hit the veteran in the groin, and he had turned green and was raising his rifle with his thin arms. Three times the captain was on the point of ordering them to fire. He was torn with perplexity, and for some seconds an apparently endless struggle within him shook all his ideas, his sense of duty and his beliefs as a man and as a soldier. The bricks rained thicker still, and just as he was opening his mouth to shout ‘Fire!’ the rifles went off of their own accord; first three shots, then five, then the whole volley of a platoon and then, long afterwards, a single shot in the midst of silence.
There was a moment of stupefaction. They had really fired, and the crowd stood motionless, unable to believe it. Then piercing shrieks arose, while the bugle sounded the cease fire. And then a wild panic like the stampede of cattle before machine-guns, a frantic rush through the mud.
(Germinal, by Emile Zola, Penguin Classics, 1954 translation by L.W. Tancock, p 410-1)
Selected by Lisa Hill, 17/11/11 and cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers.
Zola sure could write brilliant crowd scenes. I felt a bit cheated when his novels didn’t include one.
What I think is brilliant here is the way Zola has captured the moment when the discipline of the squad crumbles under provocation. It seems so relevant today when so often we see demonstrations and protests on TV.