On the Line: Notes from a Factory by Joseph Ponthus
I’ve been thinking a lot about On the Line since I read its final pages. Written in French (À la ligne) this book is a piece of autofiction in verse. Its narrator, like its author, is a social worker by education, who finds himself needing to labour in Brittany’s factories of industrial food production and animal processing, including at an abattoir and a fish and seafood plant. It is also an unusual contemporary record of a kind of workplace and work practice that is largely unfamiliar to the middle classes, but upon which access to everyday commodities depends.
Most striking in the narrative are the many descriptions of the mechanics of a long day’s hard work in these factories. This very long-time vegetarian found some of the scenes pretty challenging, but also oddly compelling, partly because they go some way toward explaining the detachment that is required for workers to encounter the death of animals as routine – something I’ve always struggled to understand. Alongside this is the internal voice of a person whose ambitions and imagination are elsewhere; as his aging body enacts the repetitive tasks on the line, he thinks about literature and history, about films and war and Marx, about his wife and his desire for his shift to end, about the exploitation of this casualised labour force which is often employed via a third-party agency, about the camaraderie with his fellow workers. All the while, he expresses the contradictory feelings of being trapped by, but reliant on and complicit in, late capitalism.
This book was a bestseller in France and won many literary awards in the year following its publication. It’s confronting and awash with sadness, but also the hope of the things – books, love, ideas, companionship – that give life shape, while acknowledging the essential work of the body that helps feed the mind and soul. Stephanie Smee’s sensitive translation of this unique work made me wish my schoolgirl French were better so I could