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

Thierry Dancourt ‘Les Ombres De Marge Finaly’


—The Yvelines is still wrapped in night, and despite this, she notices as well that the sky is almost blue. She closes her eyes, raising her face towards the star studded sky, IMG_1290thinking to herself that each and every day over the last few weeks, the snow has been burying Plaisance Gardens, the garden, the pool, the villa and with it the portrait of the young woman with the blue eyes, so completely that for the present one no longer hears of these things.
The star light from another age falls on Marges eyes. It’s what gives them their grey colour, grey with a hint of blue, on that night.***


Thierry Dancourt’s latest book ‘Jeu De Dames’ (probably a play on words, meaning draughts or checkers but also literally a ladies game) has just been published to very good reviews, leaving me wanting to get to know this writer’s work, and so I decided to begin with one of his earlier books, ‘Les Ombres de Marge Finaly’, once again more than one meaning, the shadow that Marge Finaly has left on Pierre Meilhac’s life, as well as maybe the shadowy side to Marge Finaly.

This book begins with a surprise meeting in Paris between Pierre, the main protagonist, and Marge some fifteen years after their last meeting. Dancourt’s beautifully descriptive style takes us back to the end of the sixties where he slowly unravels for us the story of  Marge and her group of friends, none of whom seem to work, and the large but rundown  country property near Paris, Plaisance Gardens, left to Marge after the death of her parents, where they seem to live or at least to meet in order to while away the endless weekends together. The reader can feel the decadence of the moment, from Dancourt’s description of the ‘car pool’ with amongst others the Renault Prairie, shown in the photo, or the Lancia Gamma, or the Pall Malls and Week Ends that Marge and her friends smoke, or his marvellous description of looking into Marges eyes as the snow slowly buries Pleasance Gardens in my opening quote.

Following this chance meeting, Pierre slowly meets Marge’s old friends that she no longer sees in order to better understand what happened in that summer fifteen years earlier, how he had been used and the mixed relationship that Marge had with him, when after the sting, replacing him to get valuable antique papers from his employers private museum, Marge runs away with him, Pierre still did not know why and the disappears for fifteen years. I can’t resist quoting one of Dancourt’s descriptions of Plaisance Gardens to finish:


—The villa came into sight, little by little, white, grey in places…..the roof terrace whose clear line, which whilst underscoring the horizontal rhythms, was interrupted by the volumes of the stairwell, the magestic smokestack of the transatlantic liner that this house, built in 1927, didn’t fail to evoke, yes, but a transatlantic liner cruising on a strange soft, delicate green english ocean, a green but raging sea what’s more, because the depressions in the lawn, sometimes quite deep  especially towards the bottom of the property, plunging into the hollows, slipping from vue, reappearing then disappearing completely once again and so, buffeted, shaken, a nutshell in the swell, it seemed so fragile, so vulnerable, so lost.
Thus I discovered  Plaisance Gardens.***


First published in French as ‘Les Ombres De Marge Finaly’ by La Table Ronde in 2012
*** My translation