Underground Time, by Delphine de Vigan, translated by George Miller
This Impac-listed novel about a bullied office worker will strike a chord if you’ve ever been the victim of workplace back-stabbing
Delphine De Vigan
Mathilde is in a crisis. She cannot sleep; if she does, she has nightmares. Her life has become so intolerable that she has already consulted a clairvoyant. The only hope she has left rests on a date: things will change on May 30th, or so she has been told. It is neither illness nor poverty that has reduced her to a nervous shadow of her former self. Her days and nights are dominated by physically incapacitating stress and her increasing dread of going to work.
The French writer Delphine de Vigan caused a deserved sensation with an earlier novel, No and Me (2007). Its success in France and Germany was matched by George Miller ’s English translation, which was published in 2010. The all-too-topical Underground Time , which, as well as having a cult following, features on the 2013 International Impac Dublin Literary Award longlist, will not only put a chill in the hearts of many office workers; it will also be greeted with nods of recognition. This bullying is what can happen in working environments where the most savage law of the jungle applies.
What makes Mathilde’s situation even worse is that it had once been so good. But she made one mistake: she disagreed with her boss – or, rather, expressed an opinion that was contrary to his during a presentation. “That meeting was where it all started, absurd though it may seem. Before that, there was nothing wrong . . . She had been deputy director of marketing in the main health and nutrition division of an international food company for more than eight years.”
De Vigan’s narrative, written mainly in the continuous present tense, is intelligent and direct; her prose is plain and efficient. Her gift is for knowing how people think and, even more important, how they feel as their worlds come toppling down around them. She understands how fragile a human ego is, and Mathilde’s has been systematically pulverised.
Over the course of several months, Mathilde’s vengeful boss, Jacques, the man who was once her mentor and who had had the vulnerability to ask her not to wear high heels whenever they had to stand together at a meeting or a presentation, has viciously undermined her. She has been left out of meetings and left out of the loop, and her colleagues now appear to be aware that to be seen chatting with her amounts to professional suicide. Whereas formerly she directed and encouraged, she is now treated as a pariah and ignored.
Mathilde battles despair and rage. She imagines killing Jacques. Only gradually does de Vigan fill out the story of the other world her central character inhabits, as a widowed mother raising three sons alone.
The daily commute is an odyssey in itself, although this only becomes apparent to Mathilde in her now weakened state. She is lucky that her shadowy children are so well behaved; readers may wonder at how undemanding these boys are. But de Vigan has decided to concentrate all of this woman’s woes within the workplace.
In fairness, they are considerable issues. Having forced her body to make the effort to get to work, she discovers that her office has been given to a younger woman. Mathilde has been moved to an empty space beside the toilets, leaving her to listen to a range of unpleasant sounds. Her files have been placed on a memory stick. When a replacement computer is installed she realises that she no longer has access to the general office file. It had been serving as her sole source of information, as she is no longer told anything.