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.
Her panic and resentment are brilliantly conveyed by de Vigan. There is a hint of Kafka about it all, except that we know the villain is the petty line manager intent on destroying Mathilde. Into this feud arrives the human-resources manager – well groomed and believed to be conducting an affair with a much younger man – who soon discovers that any help she devises for Mathilde is immediately destroyed by Jacques.
If there is a flaw in this compelling novel it is de Vigan’s decision to include a second troubled character, a doctor named Thibault. As his parallel story opens he has just managed to end a destructive relationship with a coolly detached young woman who appears incapable of any commitment beyond sex. De Vigan creates an interesting study of a man on the verge of a different kind of breakdown.
Much of his response to life is conveyed through his ambivalent feelings towards Paris. These sequences on the theme of a city’s indifference to the human insects inhabiting it are not quite as convincing as the helpless fury of a woman being scorned and isolated by her boss, and all without a hint of sexual vendetta.
The office war of attrition progresses; Mathilde makes several attempts to speak with Jacques. He avoids all contact. When he does answer a call from her, he proceeds to conduct a bogus conversation during which he repeatedly accuses her of insulting him. She remains silent while he loudly objects to her foul language and abuse, all within earshot of the other employees. As an enemy, the erratic, unstable Jacques is cunning, relentless and resourceful.
When not contemplating the dismantling of her career, Mathilde wonders what it would be like to meet someone, “a man who would understand”. But she is practical, and quickly concedes that “desperate people don’t meet. Or maybe only in films . . . And often they repel each other like the identical poles of magnets.”
No and Me , shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt in 2009, is a beguiling moral fable in which a clever young girl, damaged by her parents’ grief over the death of her younger sister, attempts to help a slightly older girl, a homeless addict. It is a profoundly touching story in which Lou, the young narrator, discovers many truths. Underground Time is different, and de Vigan’s view of backstabbing corporate politics will amuse and chill. Her boldly intuitive novel may not quite engage, but it does convince and often succeeds, most certainly when describing the helpless fury of Mathilde and the wary detachment of her gutless colleagues. It is too real for comfort.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent