Delphine de Vigan: Underground Time aka Les Heures souterraines (2009)

Everyday Mathilde takes the Metro, then the commuter train to the office of a large multi-national where she works in the marketing department. Everyday, the same routine, the same trains. But something happened a while ago – she dared to voice a different opinion from her moody boss, Jacques. Bit by bit she finds herself frozen out of everything, with no work to do. Thibault is a paramedic. Everyday he drives to the addresses he receives from his controller. The city spares him no grief: traffic jams, elusive parking spaces, delivery trucks blocking his route. He is well aware that he may be the only human being many of the people he visits will see for the entire day and is well acquainted with the symptomatic illnesses, the major disasters, the hustle and bustle and, of course, the immense, pervading loneliness of the city. Before one day in May, Mathilde and Thibault had never met. They were just two anonymous figures in a crowd, pushed and shoved and pressured continuously by the loveless, urban world. “Underground Time” is a novel of quiet violence – the violence of office-bullying, the violence of the brutality of the city – in which our two characters move towards an inevitable meeting. ‘Two solitary existences cross paths in this poignant chronicle, a new testimony to de Vigan’s superb eloquence’ 

I read a review of  Delphine de Vigan’s book on Bookaroundthecorner’s Blog and really liked the tone of it. I ‘m glad I read it. It is far from cheerful but it is an important book on an important topic.

Les Heures souterraines or Underground Time is a chillingly good novel and shockingly topical. It’s accurate in its depiction of life in a corporate setting and of  life in a big city. It’s a very timely book, a book that doesn’t shy away to speak about the ugly side of  “normal lives”.
Reading the novel feels as if we secretly observed the two main protagonists, Mathilde and Thibault, at their most intimate. We follow them during the course of one day of their life. Mathilde is a single widow with three children, Thibault lives alone as well. We seem to watch them from a bird’s eye perspective and see them roam through Paris and through their lives.

Thibault is a doctor without a practice, one who makes house calls and goes from door to door where he sees a lot of misery and distress. He just left his lover and is heart-broken. He had to admit to himself that he was the one in love, she only took advantage of him.

Mathilde works for a big corporate company. She used to like her job but a few months ago she made a tiny mistake during a meeting. She dared contradict her boss and has since then become his target.  Bit by bit he wears her down, leaves her out systematically, withdraws every important project from her. He doesn’t inform her of important meetings, sets traps in order to provoke mistakes. Mathilde is at the end of her rope. She who used to be a strong person, who survived her beloved husband’s death, who raises her children on her own, who used to be a happy and succesful woman, she is about to crack, to break down. She can’t slepp anymore, she is afraid to go to work, she thinks she suffocates.

These two people should meet, they could meet, their paths cross more than once on this day.

There are many scenes I liked a lot. One of Mathilde’s little boys knows she needs all her strength and he offer’s her one of the most coveted cards of the World of Warcraft game. I liked this because World of Warcraft is a symbol for our times. It has become so important in so many people’s lives, it is a refuge, a haven to which they can escape, where they can find solace,  another life, become another person, where they feel happier than in the “real world”.

Another scene is equally good, it is the opening of the book when we are told that Mathilde went to see a psychic. The fortune-teller tells her that she will meet someone on the 20th of May, the day on which we follow her. Both scenes show us how utterly vulnerable Mathilde is. She doesn’t know how to get out of this mess.

How is this day going to end? Is Mathilde going to overcome her difficulties? How will Thibault handle all the disasters and sadness he has to face on this day? Will they meet?

I’m afraid, if you want to find out, you will have to read this novel. Don’t hesitate, it is excellent. It was nominated for the Prix Goncourt and would have been a worthy winner. It talks about things we’d rather not talk about. The loneliness in big cities, the isolation, the struggle of modern life, the hassle to commute, the abuse of power in the work place, mobbing, the inhumanity in big companies. The novel also shows that one of the most important elements is to talk about your problems, to address them, to seek help. And you have to go to the right place. Your colleagues will not help, they are afraid, the Human Resources won’t help, they follow their own agenda. The book sadly also shows that it can be too late. People can get so tired and worn out, they simply cannot fight anymore, they despair, feel terribly ashamed and give up.

It was good to read such a well written book about things that many of us have to struggle with on a daily basis.

I’d like to add one more thing on abuse of power and mobbing. The big difference is that abuse of power is a top-down thing, while mobbing is something that is done on the same level. Both are harmful and if anyone should be ashamed, it’s the people who do it. If you want to fight it, both are equally hard to handle but I think it would be a bit easier to get help if you are a mobbing victim. Nowadays big companies have special services who deal with this kind of stuff.