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Emile Zola


Big Michu

by Emile Zola


ONE afternoon, during the four o'clock recess, Big Michu took me aside in a corner of the playground. He looked serious and that made me feel rather scared because Big Michu was sturdy and broad-shouldered, with enormous fists, and I should have hated to have him as an enemy.

'Listen to me,' he said, in his broad country accent which he had never quite succeeded in losing: 'Tell me, are you prepared to join in?'

I didn't hesitate for a moment. 'Yes,' I said, pleased to be able to join in something with Big Michu. Then he explained to me what the plot was. The fact that he was letting me into his confidence gave me a thrill of delight that I've never felt since. At last I was going to keep a secret and wage a battle; I was going to participate in life's wild adventures and indeed it was the sneaking fear I felt at the idea that I was becoming compromised in this way that contributed greatly to the thrill of becoming his accomplice.

So I listened in silent admiration as he unfolded his plan. He did so in a somewhat abrupt tone, like an officer addressing a conscript whose keenness and initiative are rather suspect. However, my eagerness and the ecstatic look of enthusiasm that I must have shown while listening must eventually have given him a better opinion of me.

As the second bell rang and we went to line up to go back to our classrooms: 'It's agreed, then,' he whispered to me. 'You'll join in. And you won't be afraid, will you? You'll not let us down?'

'Oh no, you'll see . . . I promise.'

His grey eyes looked me straight in the face, with all the gravity of a grown-up man and he added:

'Otherwise, you know, I won't give you a hiding but I'll let everyone know that you're a traitor and nobody will ever want to speak to you again.'

I can still recall the strange effect that this threat had on me. It made me feel tremendously brave. 'All right,' I said to myself, 'I don't mind if they give me 2000 lines, I'm damned if I let Michu down.' I waited for dinner-time to come with great excitement and impatience: our revolt was due to break out that evening in the dining-hall.


Big Michu came from the Var.* His father was a small peasant farmer who had taken up arms during the insurrection against Napoleon III's coup d'état in 1851. During the fighting he had been left for dead and had then gone underground. When he reemerged, he had been left in peace, but the authorities, the bigwigs and all those of independent means henceforth never referred to him as anything but 'that thug Michu'.

This 'thug', this decent, illiterate man, sent his son to the lycée in Aix, doubtless wanting him to have the education needed to bring about the triumph of the cause which he himself had tried to defend by force of arms. At school we had a vague idea of all this which made us look on Michu as a very formidable person.

Big Michu was in any case much older than we were, but at the age of nearly eighteen he was still only in the third form. He had one of those inflexible minds which lack imagination and learn slowly; but once he knew something, he knew it thoroughly and for good. Immensely strong and built like an oak, he ruled the roost in the playground, although he was extremely gentle. Only once did I ever see him lose his temper, when he nearly throttled an assistant master who was telling us that republicans were all thieves. He was nearly expelled.

It was not until later, when looking back at my recollections of my schoolmate, that I came to understand his combination of strength and gentleness: his father must have taught him early on to be a man.


Not the least of our surprises was that Big Michu liked school. There was only one thing that plagued him, although he never. dared to mention it: he was perpetually hungry.

I can't recall anyone with an appetite like his. Proud though he was, he would still sometimes invent humiliating stories in order to scrounge a piece of bread, a lunch or a dinner. He had been brought up in the mountain air of the Maures* and still suffered more cruelly from the meagre school fare than the rest of us.

The food was one of our main topics of conversation in the welcome shade of the long wall of our playground. Most of us tended to be fussy and I particularly remember a certain cod with melted butter and haricot beans in white sauce which had become the special subject of general loathing. On the days these appeared, the discussion was never-ending. Not wishing to appear different, Big Michu would join in the chorus of complaints, although he would willingly have guzzled all the six portions served at each table.

Almost the only thing that Big Michu complained about was the amount of food. A further cause of exasperation was that he happened to have been placed at the end of a table beside a young whipper-snapper of an assistant master, who allowed us to smoke during our walks. Now the rule at mealtimes was that masters were allowed a double portion so that when sausages were served you could see poor Michu casting hungry eyes on the pair of sausages lying side-by-side on the assistant's plate.

'I'm twice his size,' he said to me one day, 'and he has twice as much to eat as me. And he doesn't leave a single scrap. He doesn't find two sausages too much!'


So the big boys had decided that we should finally rise in revolt against the cod with melted butter and the beans in white sauce.

The conspirators naturally asked Big Michu to be their leader. The young gentlemen's plan was heroically simple: it would, they thought, be sufficient to go on hunger strike and refuse to eat any food until the Principal should announce, officially, that the school meals would be improved. Michu's acceptance of this plan was one of the finest and most courageous acts of unselfishness that I have ever met. He agreed to be the leader of the movement with the quiet heroism of an ancient Roman sacrificing himself for the republic.

Remember that he could not have cared less about the disappearance of the cod and beans from the menu; all he wanted was to have more of them, as much as he could eat! And the last straw was that he was being asked to go without food altogether. He confessed to me later that all those republican virtues taught him by his father--solidarity, the individual sacrifice of one's own interests to those of the community--had never been put to a sterner test.

That evening in the dining-hall--it was the cod and melted butter day--the strike began with a really splendid tutti. Only bread was to be eaten. When the dishes were served, we left them untouched and ate our dry bread. And it all took place with due solemnity, without any of our normal whispered conversations. Only some of the younger ones laughed.

Big Michu was superb. That evening he even went so far as not to eat his bread. With his elbows on the table, he was contemptuously watching the little assistant master, who was greedily stuffing himself.

Meanwhile the senior master had gone off to fetch the Principal who now came storming into the dining-hall and delivered a vigorous harangue, demanding to know what was wrong with the meal, which he tasted himself and pronounced exquisite.

Then Big Michu stood up.

'The truth is, sir, that the cod has gone off and we just can't get it down.'

'That's odd,' exclaimed the assistant, without giving the Principal time to reply. 'The other evening you ate almost the whole lot on your own, didn't you?'

Big Michu went very red. That evening, they merely sent us to bed saying that no doubt we would think better of it tomorrow.


Next day and the next, Big Michu was awe-inspiring. The assistant's words had stung him to the quick. He urged us on and said we would be cowardly to give in. He was determined now, as a matter of personal pride, to prove to us that, when it came to the point, he could go without food.

It was real torture. All those of us who could manage it were hiding chocolate, jars of jam and even ham or sausage in our desks so that we might at least have something to go with our dry bread which we were stuffing into our pockets. But Big Michu, who had no relatives in town and in any case refused to indulge in such luxuries, stuck steadfastly to the few crusts of bread which he managed to collect.

On the second day, when the Principal announced that since the pupils were so stubborn as not to touch the food provided, he was going to refuse to issue any more bread, open revolt broke out at lunchtime. It was beans and white sauce day.

Big Michu, whose mind must have become confused by his agonizing pangs of hunger, suddenly leapt to his feet, took hold of the plate of the assistant master, who was greedily tucking in, no doubt to provoke us, threw it into the middle of the room and started loudly singing the 'Marseillaise'. It was like a spark in a keg of gunpowder. Plates and glasses and bottles hurtled from all sides while the assistants hastily scrambled through the wreckage, leaving us in complete control of the dining-hall. As he rapidly took to his heels, our whipper-snapper received a plate of beans, with their white sauce, fairly and squarely between his shoulder blades, leaving him with a large white collar-band round his neck.

The question now was how to fortify our stronghold. Big Michu was appointed commanding general. He had the tables carried up and piled in front of the doors. I well remember that we had all picked our knives up and were holding them in our hands. And the 'Marseillaise' thundered on: revolt was turning into a revolution. Fortunately, they decided to leave us to our own devices for a good three hours while they went off to fetch the police. Those three rowdy hours were enough to cool us down.

At the end of the dining-hall there were two large windows overlooking the playground. The more timorous of us, scared by the long reprieve that we were being granted, quietly opened one of the windows and slipped out. Gradually they were followed by others. Soon Big Michu was left with less than a dozen insurgents to support him. Gruffly he said to them: 'Off you go and join the others, there's no need for more than one of us to take the blame.'

Then, seeing that I was hesitating, he spoke to me directly:

'I'm letting you off your promise, all right?'

When the authorities broke down one of the doors, they found Michu on his own, quietly sitting on the end of a table amidst the broken crockery. He was sent home in disgrace that very same evening. As for the rest of us, we didn't get much benefit from our revolt. They took care not to serve cod or beans for a few weeks. They then made their reappearance, but this time the cod was in a white sauce and the beans in melted butter.


Long afterwards I met Michu again. He had not been able to continue his studies and he was farming the few bits of land left to him by his father on his death.

'I'd've made a rotten lawyer or doctor,' he said, 'because I was a bit thick. I'm better as a farmer. It suits me. All the same, you certainly did let me down, all of you. And to think that I was really mad on cod and beans!'



Last updated:
July 12, 2008
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