Friday, March 10, 2017

The Water Tower by André Stil

A proletarian novel against American imperialism
The Water Tower was originally published in 1951 under the French title of Au château d’eau. It is the first volume in a trilogy entitled Le Premier choc, or The First Clash. At the time of publication, author André Stil was editor of the Communist newspaper L’Humanité, and The Water Tower reads as if it could easily have been serialized in that party organ. In fact, the Soviet Union awarded the book the Stalin Prize for literature in 1952. The plot is based on real historical events that took place at the port of La Rochelle in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region of France’s Atlantic coast. It focuses on a community of dockworkers who live under conditions of extreme poverty in a squalid shantytown.

As is often the case with people’s history, this novel opened my eyes to historical events which were previously unknown to me. The dockworkers in this novel are not just struggling against unfair labor practices, crippling poverty, and capitalist persecution, they are also resisting what they term the “American occupation” of France. In the early years of the Cold War, America was working toward rearming defeated Germany to help protect western Europe from Russian encroachment. Needless to say, many French people, who had just undergone years of Nazi occupation during World War II, were not too pleased about this. The Americans, with the cooperation of the French government, had commandeered ports on the coast of France to serve as military bases, which they shared with German submarines. Americans were unloading arms at these ports and shipping them by train across France to Germany. In response, the French dockworkers, many of whom were members of the communist party, went on strike against this practice and refused to receive American ships in their ports. These workers also envisioned their ports being used to fuel wars in Korea and Indochina, wars they saw as furthering American imperialism to the destruction of their brother workers in other lands. The conflict escalates when the Americans begin to seize portions of the workers’ lands and enclose them in a military compound.

Not every character in the book is a socialist or communist. Stil represents the bourgeoisie as well, though there’s little doubt where his sympathies lie. The narrative delves deeply into the workings of the local communist cell and its party politics. The reader attends heated meetings where issues and strategy are debated and accompanies the characters on a dangerous mission of resistance. Through Stil’s engaging storytelling, the reader becomes intimately involved with these characters and drawn into their world. One can’t help but sympathize with these poor workers struggling against the forces that enslave them. The Water Tower calls to mind great classic social novels like Emile Zola’s Germinal, yet it is written in a more modernist style, with shifting perspectives and occasional stream-of-consciousness passages, reminiscent of Man’s Fate by André Malraux.

The English translation by Mollie Guiart and Yvonne Kapp can be a bit clumsy at times. Nevertheless, the power and passion of Stil’s prose shines through. The only fault I find with the book is its lack of an ending. As a stand-alone novel, it is incomplete. Sometimes a trilogy consists of three interrelated novels arranged in sequence; other times a trilogy is simply just a novel cut into thirds. The First Clash appears to fall into the latter category. After having read the exceptional first installment, I am definitely going to seek out the other two volumes to get the whole story.
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