Thursday, April 26, 2012

"The Trench" by Erri De Luca

Welcome back to ShelfActualization's monthly short story club.  This month, we have a dandy.  To start, look at this opening line:

"When I found the sewer pipe I was happy, but I couldn't smile."

Beautiful, short, and altogether intriguing.  But the rest of the story is what really burns me up.  I've been fascinated by this story for years simply because it takes an otherwise ordinary, or even sub-ordinary, situation (that of digging a trench outside of Paris to locate a buried sewer pipe) and converts this ordinary situation into an immense moment of profundity.

All of a sudden down in this ordinary trench with a shovel and pick ax, we are dealing with a myriad of profound human experiences.  For example:

  • Identity ("The other man was me, a thirty-two year old Italian laborer . . . At midday, between mouthfuls of highly spiced watery soup, we talked for a while in our rudimentary common French, then each returned to his own thoughts in his mother tongue.")

  • Sanity ("At the end of the first week the man who was with me started to crack . . . 'Trouve? Tu l'as trouve?' the hoarse voice of a lost man, the common exhalation of the trenches of the century.")

  • Death ("I assured him that if the trench were going to collapse it would do so only at night, when the damp came . . . one shouldn't speak of death with one's foot in the grave.")

  • Socioeconomics ("But why should a man have to suffer this way?  Why in the world should a human being have to earn bread for his children with a noose around his neck?") 

  • Free Will ("Then I decided that he was no help to me - I would manage better on my own. So, in front of the other workers, I asked [the boss] to let me finish the job alone."

Thus we have an ordinary situation laced with profound themes.  And so, my conclusion is this:  The Trench masterfully portrays the immensity of a mundane moment in a trench with a shovel under the French sky.  And why do we not notice more often the immensity of mundane moments in our own lives?



  1. I like your take on this one. This episode meant absolutely everything to the migrant worker narrating the story, and meant absolutely zip to the thousands who would soon be able to flush their filth down that same sewer pipe because of his back-breaking work.

    It’s amazing, though. It’s a very short piece, and not a lot happens plotwise. But as you pointed out, there are plenty of universal themes for the reader to take away from the story. I read a quote yesterday by Harry Crews, in the Paris Review, that seems appropriate:

    “Good fiction is not there to prove anything,” he once said. “Good fiction is there to make you breathe with another human being, bleed with him, to suck you out of your skin for a little while and put you in somebody else’s skin, to participate in another man’s doing the best they can with what they got to do it with.”

    If you agree with his definition of good fiction, then this story really knocks it out of the park, despite its short length.

    I’ll also agree that the first line is great, but the following section really had me laughing, as well:

    ‘Has anyone ever been happy to smell shit? I was, and I swelled with fierce pride, thus mixing with that natural odor the unnatural stench of all the garbage I had carried inside me for those two weeks. Shit on shit: it must have been a tie between me and that sewer, in the contest to see which of us held more.”

    So I guess that makes two thumbs up. Anybody disagree with us?

  2. I do not disagree with either of you. Thank you for including the quote by Harry Crews; too bad his voice was recently silenced.

    It was a hard story for me to read for personal reasons. In the early 70's, I made my "living" working for the Public Works Department in a small, poor, rural Oregon town, where accessing sewer lines involved work just as described in this story. Trench shoring was not an affordable "luxury", so we dug them by hand, deep and long. It was tolerable work in the summer, but in the winter, when the coast range mountains are blanketed with endless rain, I was wet from sun up to sundown, water pouring off the sides and down into the 10 to 12 feet trenches, constantly shifting and moving the gravel and heavy clay. Hell, somedays we dug out the same few feet of trench repeatedly, in some inverse Prometheusian universe. I don't think that I was capable of recognizing the "immensity of mundane moments" at the time. (Survival seemed the better focus.) Isn't that the purview of writers and poets, to help us see those moments that elude the bulk of us, stumbling through life half-asleep?

    But I digress. The story allowed long ago tamped-down waves of claustrophobia to resurface and I initially had a hard time focusing on the story at hand; eventually its simple elegance penetrated my thick skull. Thanks for sharing this moving piece of art.


    1. Wow. Thanks for sharing, Eugene. What a perspective!

      We certainly didn't mean to trigger any PTSD for anyone, but it's cool to hear that the story rings true.

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  4. I'm amazed that Eugene used the term "inverse Prometheusian universe." Although I'm pretty sure he meant "Sisyphean." I was thinking along the same exact lines!

    I really admired this story. The writing is excellent. The drama, while contained (literally), feels epic.

    I'm left wondering about free will though. The Italian seems to be trapped by his own pride – his insistence on sticking it to the boss, even when it means risking his own life. What's more, he's given a clear opportunity to win favor with the boss by claiming the trench was safe, but he doesn't. He's locked himself in an ideological battle in which he's destined to suffer. He ends his narrative explaining as much.

    So, Matt (what's with the pseudonyms?), does the Italian have free will? Or has he free willed himself into a trap? Or, to put it another way, what are his constraints? Are they self-imposed or not?

    1. It's been a while since my last brush with Greek Mythology, but weren't Prometheus and Sisyphus both given "repetitive" punishments by the gods?

      I guess the analogy depends on whether ditch-digging is more akin to pushing a boulder up a hill everyday, or having your entrails devoured by an eagle everyday.

      Love your other thoughts, Jed. I anxiously await his reply.

  5. So . . . after considering Jed's thoughts most of the afternoon, I have concluded as follows:

    I don't care whether the Italian worker has free will (although I still maintain that he DOES). All I care about is that an otherwise ordinary event was portrayed as extraordinary as a result of a well-turned piece of short fiction.

    Quit screwing with me Jed.