Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A Gun is Unloaded by André Stil

Suffers from middle-book-in-a-trilogy syndrome
A Gun is Unloaded is the second book in French author André Stil’s trilogy, Le premier choc (The First Clash). This volume was originally published in 1952 under the French title of Le Coup du canon. The trilogy focuses on the lives of dockworkers on the Atlantic coast of France in the years following World War II. These workers are struggling under what they perceive to be the American occupation of their seaport home. The Americans are unloading arms to be shipped across the country by rail to France’s former enemy, Germany, whom America wants to rearm to help protect western Europe from the Soviet Union. The dockworkers, most of whom are Communists, refuse to handle any of these arm shipments to Germany, as well as any weapons headed for Korea or Indochina. In retaliation for this partial strike, the dockworkers’ hours are drastically cut, plunging them into living conditions of abject poverty.

The first book in the trilogy, The Water Tower, ended with the laborers collectively leaving their squalid shantytown to take up residence as squatters in an unused office building. This second book picks up where volume one left off, showing us further how the dockworkers respond to the activity of the American military in their midst. Secret meetings take place among the workers to discuss tactics of sabotage and propaganda. There are moments of open defiance as well, like when they stand in solidarity to stop a local farmer’s land from being seized. The story takes the form of a series of vignettes in which we follow one character through three or four chapters. A young woman named Gisèle, for example, becomes romantically involved with an American soldier. Henri Leroy, the head of the dockworkers’ local Communist Party cell, meets with members of the railroad workers’ union to try to coordinate a plan of resistance. A Gun is Unloaded suffers from the same fault that many middle books in a trilogy share. While it serves the purpose of a bridge between the first and last volumes, the plot just kind of treads water. The story doesn’t really move forward until the final chapter, which sets up a promised climax in book three.

André Stil was the editor of the French Communist Party’s newspaper, L’Humanité. He does a great job of writing from the workers’ perspective and vividly depicting their living and working conditions in a naturalistic style is reminiscent of Emile Zola’s novels of social justice. A Gun is Unloaded has a few really memorable moments of profound pathos. Overall, however, there is a detachment to this second book that I did not feel with The Water Tower. The narrative switches from first to third person, often taking the form of stream of consciousness from a variety of characters’ perspectives. Stil employs a strategy of full immersion, treating the reader as if he were a member of the dockworkers’ community, intimately familiar with all the characters and their histories. Rather than increasing the reader’s involvement in the story, however, it makes it harder to understand what’s going on. Stil expects the reader to know the ins and outs of the dockworkers’ occupation, the organizational structure of the French Communist Party, and the entire history of labor strife that led up to the trilogy. If you don’t happen to possess such knowledge, you constantly feel like you have been thrust into a conversation already in progress, struggling to get your bearings and figure out what everyone is talking about before the chapter ends.

The third novel in this trilogy, Paris avec nous, to the best of my knowledge has not been translated into English. I was thinking of trying to read it in French, but now I’m not so sure it’s worth the effort. A Gun is Unloaded is a fine novel, but not nearly as compelling as The Water Tower.
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