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
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