Joseph Ponthus’ On the Line, a French prose poetry bestseller released in translation on March 31 by Black Inc, is a deeply unpleasant read. Shunted around the abattoirs and fish processing plants of Brittany by an unfeeling temp agency, Ponthus lays bare the indignities of late capitalist labour in stark, unguarded language which leaves the unfortunate reader fatigued and with a vague sense of nausea.
The book follows Ponthus as — after failing to find work in his professional field of social work — he signs on at a temp agency and is sent to and from various food processing factories without consistent hours or security of employment. Ponthus’ life is delegated to the whims of the agency’s contractors, who dole out work with mere hours notice, and end jobs with less. No chance for loyalty or promotion, and most definitely no benefits.
Ponthus contrasts the modern aesthetics of gleaming factories — mechanised, computerised, and governed, at least in theory, by reams of safety regulations — against the unavoidable brutality of manual labour. He writes: “Triumphant capitalism has learned the lesson well that to best exploit the worker/You have to look after them/Just a bit.”
Face masks, steel-caps and half hour breaks are but a small tonic against the pig shit, blood smatter and bovine detritus: “mind you don’t find yourself under the pipe when the hooves fall.” In the break room: “I shake hands that have been sliced/I see/Wooden legs/That blokes put on before putting on their work coat and their chain mail protective gear.”
In this Dickensian atmosphere, Ponthus seeks escape from labour in literature. Accepting his first temp job, he quotes from Victor Hugo: he can start work “tomorrow at dawn when the countryside pales”; counting down the minutes until clock off time, Dumas appears: “the sum of all human wisdom is contained in these two words: Wait and hope!” Apollinaire is a frequent companion over the battle of a long shift. Waiting for knock off: “with eyes fixed on my watch I await the moment when we’ll go over the top.”
Frequent recourse to poetry grates on the reader when followed by recollections of workplace discourse: ‘Bloody hell mate you should have seen/The tub of yoghurt I delivered to her.” Despite sharing shifts, lifts and smokes with his colleagues, Ponthus is unable to discard his professional managerial background, and too frequent literary allusions are a method of maintaining class distinction between him and his “incompetent full-of-shit alcoholic” workmates on the line: “I’m dying to go see the boss and tell him on the quiet/Eh you do know it’s bozo over there and not me.”
Stephanie Smee’s translation — although emotively conveying the fatigue and horror and resignation of the workplace — occasionally feels out of place. For example, it is difficult to imagine Ponthus “bumming a ciggie” or looking forward to “smoke-o.”
Despite its flaws, On the Line manages to evoke disgust, fatigue and fear in the reader. Don’t read over dinner.