THE BLOG

Striking Books: The Best Strikes in Literature

01/12/2011 11:48 | Updated 30 January 2012

Claire Armistead started me thinking with her #strikelit hashtag yesterday morning.

In my opinion Germinal by Emile Zola provides the best depiction of a strike in world literature. Zola examines the effects of the strike in a coalmine in Northern France during the 1860s.

Étienne Lantier is a young miner who is hard working but also a little naive. Influenced by Souvarine, an exiled Russian anarchist, he embraces socialism. As the working conditions of the miners detiriorate and they decide to strike Étienne is recognised as a political idealist and becomes one of their leaders. The strike worsens the already appalling conditions the men and their families are living under. Souvarine keeps pressing for violent action but the miners are naturally conservative and hold back. Eventually their rage explodes in uncontrolled rioting that is brutally repressed by the police and military. Étienne is blamed by his fellow workers for the disastrous outcome and they all go back to work. But the anarchist Souvarine refuses to give up and ensures an explosive conclusion to the book. Some of Zola's ideas about society and the pre-destination of human nature are a little odd but the novel explores the phenomena of the strike from every angle. Zola's attention to detail and supreme eye for the nuances of human life means his attempt to create a realistic representation of a strike in the form of a novel is highly successful.

David Peace's GB84 looks at the battle between Margaret Thatcher and the miners during the 1980's. Peace writes brilliantly about the day-to-day life of the striking miners and the effect it has on their families. There are some memorable scenes, in particular the Battle of Orgreave. The violence of the struggle, the injustice of the media reactions to the strike (the BBC misreporting Orgreave for example) are very well dealt with. However there is a quasi-mystical aspect of the book that I found more problematic.

Another book that is certainly worth a look if you are interested in representations of political struggle in literature is Ragtime by EL Doctorow.

Emma Goldman appears as a character in the novel and her attempts to fight for the rights of workers and ordinary people in New York City are brilliantly depicted. Goldman was constantly harassed and arrested. Doctorow reminds us that without the passion of such people we would probably all still be working at weekends, paid holiday wouldn't exist, abortion would be illegal, and there would be no benefits at all. Emma Goldman was especially concerned with the rights of women and did much to drive the issue of equal rights onto the agenda worldwide.

I'm sure I'm not the only frustrated parent at home trying to do some work today. It's hard to concentrate when your small son is practicing his songs for the school nativity play in the background with operatic intensity but just imagine how bad your situation might be were it not for the organisation of working people.

So there you go, a few striking books. Any others you particularly like?