Daewoo, by François Bon - Part One15 November 2013
Literary translation is a seemingly impossible task – which explains why it is so fascinating. The English-language side of the literary magazine Salon .ll. is the go-to place for discussions which make translation possible. On its French side, Salon .ll. offers an excerpt from Daewoo (Fayard, 2004), a novel by the French writer François Bon, side-by-side with an as yet unpublished English-language translation of the same text by New Yorkers Alison Dundy and Emmanuelle Ertel. The United States does not have the reputation of a country that translates a lot. Even so, literature likes to scoff at borders and there is no lack of readers, in the United States and elsewhere, when it comes to indulging oneself in the pleasure of discovery combined with the more intellectual exercise of comparison. It is to this subtle dialogue of languages that we now invite you.
Translated by Ellen Sowchek
Presentation by Alison Dundy et Emmanuelle Ertel
When the Korean conglomerate Daewoo proposed setting up new electronics plants in the economically devastated Lorraine region of France, it seemed like a win-win situation. It would prove to be the contrary. Following revelation of accounting fraud, one of the largest in history, in which millions of dollars, including public subsidies were embezzled by management, Daewoo closed up shop and went home. And although the company's president eventually stood trial in Korea, it was small consolation to the workers left behind, their lives and livelihoods destroyed by the scandal.
Daewoo, an evocative historical novel by François Bon, gives voice to these (mostly women) workers who were the ultimate victims of this corporate crime. Based on documentary research and personal interviews with some of the workers, Bon has created a work that captures the very human and often tragic side of this drama. As he himself describes it, "If these female workers no longer have a place anywhere, let this novel be their memoir."
The blue building was empty, the name of the factory had been changed, and tough shit for the men and women who had been tossed out—"report to the occupational reclassification department," which wouldn't reclassify many people. (I'm writing in March 2004: this reclassification task, which began fifteen months ago, was finished three months ago and still no statistics are available.)
Layoffs continue, and if we're talking about businesses—their holy name, "business"— that employ less than fifty people, the layoffs are not even accounted for. At Fameck, the blue building is still there, looking sharp with its white gate, while the condition of cars parked in town attest to everyone else's general health: not so great. But the serious cracks running across the surface of the old world today do not readily reveal the reasons that make them apparent.
The three Daewoo factories are practically in a straight line along the four-lane highway that runs between Metz and Thionville to Luxembourg via Longwy, through the Fensch Valley, which at one time was punctuated by huge steelworks but only one survives today, like the tall furnace at Uckange, cold for the last twelve years, the imposing frozen ruin a tribute to the time when this valley lived on the transformation of iron to steel.
On September 16, 2002, the closing of the Daewoo factory in Villers-La-Montagne is officially announced. In Villers-la-Montagne as well as in Fameck, the Daewoo factory is a simple white parallelepiped among other smaller industrial buildings overlooking the highway. Since 1989 microwave ovens were made here, the factory employed 229 people, women—in 1989 it was practically a small symbol of luxury in kitchens, microwaves, an appliance that symbolized the modern age. Now it's like a toaster, banal, and the ones found in supermarkets (I checked) even under fifteen different brand names are all made in China.
Nine miles farther down the road: the flagship factory. The largest of the three units built by Daewoo, and also the newest. They made such a big deal about setting up shop in Lorraine, on the ruins of the steel industry, where progress and the coveted objects of modern comfort would find fertile ground and a ready supply of human labor—two more factories would spring up in two other nearby towns, one of them to make glass for television screens. Mont-Saint-Martin is just outside Longwy, a town that didn't take enough care of itself back in the day when factory chimneys filled the night sky with orange flames, and now looks like someone who has lost weight but not changed out of their old clothes. Too many dead façades. Along the Chiers River, where the railway tracks also run below the town, where you had to drive past mile after mile of factories, steel-rolling mills, wire-cabling plants, before finding the main entrance to the place the temporary employment agency sent you to, pale fields, barren fields, where even the grass is ailing. The Daewoo factory was built on the heights in Mont-Saint-Martin, a town looking for a deployment outside the scars of three crumbling steel mills, those mills that I had known when they were noisy and smoking, and at night glowing almost all the way to the sky in that period of the mid-1970s, when we would go there in the summer to hire ourselves out as temp workers to cover the costs of our student years, when we listened to Led Zeppelin and found our music in harmony with the abstract geometry and power of factories. In Mont-Saint-Martin, 550 people for production of cathode-ray tubes, the vacuum cone with electrons emitted from a high-frequency double coil. The only factory with a male majority, but few skilled jobs, even though it requires very specialized workmanship.
People will frequently mention the enormous turnover because these Daewoo women and men take off as soon as they find anything better. They'll provide figures on the gnawing absenteeism, due to low wages, not enough supervisors. As an example of a now-universal practice they'll cite the numbers of those employed on an interim basis to avoid hiring full timers.
Mont-Saint-Martin will produce a thousand cathode tubes per day, a question today: you can't make a factory like that profitable with that volume of production. The flagship vessel of Daewoo Lorraine, the group didn't worry about reducing its deficit: a pretext for other alliances in the gigantic and more solid market for automobile engines in North Africa; is that why the Koreans needed France? Simply a place to circulate capital they'd rather keep invisible? It's the newest of the three factories and an entire swath of ministers came for the plant's inauguration. During the strikes that follow the announcement of the plant’s closing, the factory will be occupied. Workers, investigating the computers, discovered the existence of fifty Swiss bank accounts: they lacked the foresight to demand that the equipment be seized as evidence. A few days later, fire set by arson destroys the factory and its inventory. The very next morning, the directors evacuate the computers and accounting vouchers from the administrative building, which escaped damage. A missed opportunity.
In 1998, the Daewoo group decides to liquidate thirty-two of its forty-seven factories around the world. The three factories in the Fensch valley were subsidized by the state in the name of giving lifeblood and work back to a region bled dry when the mines and steel mills were shut down. So who do the factories belong to? Political authorities in the region waste no time before claiming that they made a return on their investment ("we got our money back," the president of the regional government, Gerard Longuet, elegantly announced—and in our society of "good economic sense" according to the slogan of the Prime Minister at the time I'm writing, that's good enough). The three Daewoo sister plants employ 1,200 people at this time. In Villers-la-Montagne, when the group gives its first warning, they had already closed two out of five assembly lines in the factory.
The second factory to be built is also the second to be closed. In Fameck, just past Uckange, where the Fensch valley opens up, Daewoo had built a unit to make televisions. The unit employs 260 people, here too, the overwhelming majority of them women. In 1998, they're producing more than one million televisions per year. In 2000, Daewoo exports its televisions from Poland, and no more than 600,000 are now produced in Fameck. In 2002 they decided to further reduce production to 450,000 and management announces in January that the first "social plan" will eliminate ninety jobs that year through voluntary departures. In exchange they promise that Daewoo Fameck will assemble flat screens, which will give the factory a second lease on life. In April 2002, workers march into the town after a mysterious factory visit by a certain Mr. Choi, top man in the company. The workers only ask for "transparency." On Friday, December 13, Korean manager Kwon Sik Im informs the 170 remaining workers that the definitive closing of the factory is set for January. As in Villers, workers occupy the plant, sequester the boss, march. An office is trashed. Lots of newspaper articles.
On October 17, 2002, the commercial court in Briey (Longwy is in Meurthe-et-Moselle) gives the Mont-Saint-Martin factory three months to prove that it can turn a profit, which Daewoo never sought to do the whole time it was receiving public subsidies. It's discovered that the factory did not pay fees or taxes and that the tax authorities let them get away with it, while they owe 3.4 million euros for health and welfare benefits, to which the Social Security Contribution Collection Office adds 400,000 euros in additional penalties. Management ingratiates itself with the reply that it will cut costs "thanks to internal reorganization and negotiations with suppliers." The state invokes a mysterious reimbursement for the VAT (value added tax) on exports to clear up these debts. On January 9, 2003, the commercial court of Briey meets again and the factory declares bankruptcy. The workers decide to occupy the plant. The factory is granted a grace period until February 9, before the official liquidation is announced. It's estimated that Daewoo received 35 million euros in public subsidies.
The 229 women workers at Daewoo Villers have been laid off since December 2002 and their factory closed. It's announced that Daewoo Fameck will shut down on January 31, 2003, and the 170 workers who escaped the preceding year's social plan will be fired. On January 23 a fire destroys the Mont-Saint-Martin Daewoo plant, struck since December 19, occupied on January 20, yet they claim work resumed there on January 20.
The end. But what about the women? What about the men?
You can read Part Two here.
Text © François Bon
Translation © Alison Dundy and Emmanuelle Ertel
Alison Dundy is an archivist and translator from French into English and Italian into English. Her translations of Sony Labou Tansi's Life and a Half and Alain Mabanckou's Blue White Red were published by Indiana University Press.
Photo: Luis Reyes.
Emmanuelle Ertel is an Associate Professor of French literature and of translation at New York University, and the director of the M.A. Program in Literary Translation: French to English. She is also a professional translator. Among her translations of American novels into French are Louis Begley’s The Man Who Was Late and As Max Saw It, Rick Moody’s The Black Veil, and Tom Perrotta’s Little Children and The Leftovers.
Published with the collaboration of The French Publisher's Agency.