Subterranean Hope

I’m sure I’m not the only one for whom the story of the trapped Chilean copper miners has called to mind the classic novel Germinal.

A vividly-drawn tale of the struggle for survival in the coalfields of northern France in the mid-nineteenth century, Zola’s naturalistic masterpiece is one of my favourite books, but it is rather grim. I had to stop reading it for a day or two at several points, to take a break from the relentless tide of misfortune that befalls the central characters, who are pictured so realistically that it is impossible not to empathise with their suffering. It does end on a note of optimism though, with one of the most rousing passages in literature:

“Beneath the blazing of the sun, in that morning of new growth, the countryside rang with song, as its belly swelled with a black and avenging army of men, germinating slowly in its furrows, growing upwards in readiness for harvests to come, until one day soon their ripening would burst open the earth itself.”

Nearly two centuries have passed since the period portrayed in Germinal, but it’s worth remembering that mining remains one of the most hazardous professions in the world, with more than twelve thousand workers losing their lives every year. Even in safety-conscious Switzerland eight men died during the construction of the Gotthard tunnel.

Let’s hope the discipline and solidarity shown by the 33 miners of San Jose inspires workers the world over to unite, organise and demand an improvement in their conditions.

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