Joseph Ponthus ‘Back to the production line’


The factory has got to me
I only ever call it my factory
As if the simple temp that I am amongst so many
others owns in any way the
machines or the fish or the shrimp
production***


This is Joseph Ponthus’ first published book, read for the Roman De Rochefort prize, and there can be no doubt that what is described in these pages, written in verse, represent actual episode lived by Ponthus. He tells us of working on production lines as a temp in the food industry in Brittany, beginning in fish transformation factories which seem hard until he describes his missions in an industrial slaughterhouse.

Through his writing we live with him the exhaustion and the mind numbing days measured by the continual advancement of the production lines. He tells us of the nobility of the workers ensuring against the odds that the lines are never brought to a halt but also in contrast the futility of many of the tasks in under-maintained factories.


The work isn’t so hard
repetitive
Empying twentyfive kilo crates
to fill other twentyfive kilo crates
We may seem like cartoon characters
But its a factory
And you build your muscles.***


As the story goes on everything outside of his time and energy consuming factory becomes peripheral to his life, even his wife and his dog. We get the feeling of someone on a treadmill fighting to stay on as the physicallity of his job slowly destroys his articulations, as life is reduced to the counting of the minutes between cigarette breaks, of working day in day out at whatever hours the machines require, of passing each working moment under basic neon light.


You leave behind your sleep yet again full of dreams
of the factory
to plunge back into another night
Cold artificial and lit by neon.***


And then there is the absurd, the managers and sales people that cannot really comprehend the work in their own factories, illustrated by the folloxing quote, where after a week pushing quarters of beef in a freezer along ill installed rails, requiring lifting the carcasses to advance and thus moving four hundred kilos a day every day, the monthly accident figures are put on the notice boards with a positive poster:


And
Especially
The one that made us laugh for a month

A female production operator from the red
offal section ‘the less I carry the better I feel’
I remember that the morning that poster was
put up
How we Laughed
And we laughed
And we laughed***


This is a book about life, about the will to go forward in the battle that is life, Joseph Ponthus has given us a unique look behind the curtains at the factory and its workers.

First Published in French as “À la ligne” in 2019 by La Table Ronde.
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

L’usine m’a eu
Je n’en parle plus qu’en disant
Mon usine
Comme si petit intérimaire que je suis parmi tant
d’autres j’avais une quelconque propriété des
machines ou de la production de poissons ou de
crevettes

Le boulot n’est pas si dur
Répétitif
Vider des caisses de vingt-cinq kilos
pour remplir d’autres caisses de vingt-cinq kilos
Certes on dirait des Shadoks
Mais c’est l’usine
Et ça fait des muscles

On sort du sommeil encore marqué de rêves
d’usine
Pour replonger dans une autre nuit
Artificielle froide et éclairée de néons

Et
Surtout
Celle qui nous a fait rire un bon mois

Une opératrice de production piéceuse aux abats
rouge disant ‘moins je porte mieux je me porte’
Je me souviens que le matin où l’affiche avait été
mise
On se marrait
On se marrait
On se marrait

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