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David Ireland: The Unknown Industrial Prisoner

This book is a dystopian satire on the industrial state in the post-World War II period. It happens to be set in Australia but could be set anywhere in the West. Puroil, a company which has been going since the middle of the nineteenth century, is an oil refinery. It is run by an Australian board which reports to a London board which reports to a world board. The workers are “prisoners”, not in the strict sense but because, under the current laws, they have a choice – to work for the company or starve to death. Puroil’s managers are brutal, indeed are encouraged to be so and penalized if they are not. Workers are required to work shifts – day and night – and safety at the plant is appalling. But the company does itself no favours by having rigid bureaucratic rules which stifle creativity and lead to excessive waste.

The employees that we see do not have real names. They either have nicknames – the Great White Father (later the Great White Feather) and the Wandering Jew are two of the supervisors, while the workers are Blue Hills, Beautiful Twinkling Star, Two Pot Screamer and a host of other imaginative names, though for the management they are merely known by numbers. But apart, from this, the book reminds me of a serious version of Dilbert. Management is incompetent, often brutal, thinking only of its profits and its status with management higher up the line. It cares little for the environment or for the local community (Sydney). Workers are discarded, cheated and abused. Safety is lax to the point of non-existence, all in the interest of short-term profits or because it’s someone else’s responsibility. Eventually, the combination of incompetence, neglect, bad planning, willful sabotage by disgruntled employees and over-bureaucratic rules leads to the inevitable disaster.

There is no plot to this novel, except for the fact that we more or less follow what happens to the employees and we see that, inevitably, a disaster will occur as safety rules are flouted, short-term gains are sought and no-one gives a shit beyond his own little world. Indeed, the Puroil plant is the world, as we do not see beyond it, except for glimpses of the area outside. Women have an almost casual role, as wives and prostitutes, no more. But, for the men, it is work there or die. And the Unknown Industrial Prisoner? It is a metal sculpture by one of the supervisors that wins a prize. “Why do they think so much of bits and pieces?” says one of the prisoners. “They can come here any day of the week and give sculpture prizes of everything in the place.”

Publishing history

First published 1971 by Angus & Robertson