The events of this novel take place over the course of one day, May 20th, as two lonely, troubled people make their way around Paris and the reader wills them to collide and connect. When Matilde wakes up early, recalling that a fortune teller has predicted a redemptive encounter for her that day, she is struck at first by the recognition of how low she has sunk, to cling to the support of mystics.
Quite the most powerful part of this novel is its portrait of bullying in the workplace. Mathilde has a good job in a marketing company and has enjoyed a harmonious relationship with her boss, Jacques, until the day that she unthinkingly contradicts him in a meeting with clients. From this point on, he stages a subtle but inexorable campaign of psychological attrition, undermining her confidence, belittling her to the rest of the company, gradually stripping her of her duties, her responsibilities, her self-esteem, until May 20th when she finds herself effectively sidelined altogether from her job. Mathilde’s cowardly colleagues pity her but lack the backbone to stand up for her, and Mathilde, still emotionally vulnerable from the loss of her husband, in desperate need of her job to support her family, finds her hands tied time and again, the words of the discussions she attempts to open up with him turned against her.
Meanwhile, on the streets of Paris, paramedic Thibault goes about his job of tending to its sick and unhappy citizens. Thibault has been in a deeply unfulfilling relationship with Lila and May 20th is the day following their break-up, an event that has cost him dearly, even though he knows it had to be done. I’ve found there was always a moment reading these novels when the irreconcilable Frenchness of them burst forth, and here, Thibault’s unhappiness stems from the fact that Lila uses him for sex but refuses a deeper emotional engagement. In Britain, that would be your average man’s dream relationship. But all hail the tender-heartedness of the French male, as Thibault struggles with his bleakness in the wake of his loss, more affected than he usually is by the pitiful people to whom he is trying to give medical aid.
The title of the novel in French is Les Heures Souterraines, which conveys more than the ‘Underground Time’ of the translation. Much as the metro features in both the stories of Mathilde and Thibault, the ‘underground’ nature of the narrative refers equally to the way their stories are composed through their private thoughts and responses. The narrative alternates between the viewpoints of each character, but remains located in an underground layer of their minds where streams of consciousness rise and swirl. Hence this is a book with scarcely any dialogue, but the prose is so slippery and supple that it doesn’t feel disquieting. Instead, the reader is drawn down deep into the minds of the protagonists, to experience the isolation of the individual at its basic level.
This is a melancholy novel which will resonante particularly with anyone who has suffered the misfortune of feeling trapped in a toxic workplace. It deserves to be applauded for such an accurate and poignant portrait of intimidation, which is a topic that is rarely treated in literature. Personally, I would have liked to see Mathilde defeat and humiliate her intolerable boss and string him out to dry, and then to fall rapturously in love with Thibault – the Hollywood ending, in other words. Instead, de Vigan offers something more realistic, more ambiguous and a tad anti-cathartic, which is a courageous choice on her part and shows her to have her finger on the pulse of the alienation of modern metropolitan living.