Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 15, 2021

The War of the Poor (2009), by Éric Vuillard, translated by Mark Polizzotti

Well, I’m (sort of) killing two birds with one stone for #NovNov (Novellas in November): last week was Short nonfiction hosted by Rebecca from Bookish Beck and this week is Literature in Translation hosted by Cathy at 746 Books.  The War of the Poor (La Guerre des pauvres) by Éric Vuillard is, in the opinion of minds finer than mine, is more of a biography and nearer to non-fiction than fiction, even if it was nominated for the International Booker (which is supposed to be for long-form fiction or a collection of short stories.)

Since it’s only 80 pages long, I’ve also some doubts about whether it’s long enough to be a novella, but — whatever — it is translated, by Mark Polizzotti.

It’s interesting enough, but its claim to fame is really that this brutal episode harvested from history and rewritten in a somewhat conversational style, is still relevant because there are still futile protests against the inequity that characterises the global economy.

It’s set in 18th century Europe when the Protestant Reformation was rebelling against the venality and corruption of the Catholic Church. In the same vein as the 14th century radical social reformer Wat Tyler, Thomas Müntzer led a group of peasants who weren’t impressed by promises of achieving equality in heaven, and they weren’t impressed by Martin Luther either.  Müntzer was a firebrand, an orator, and a populist:

Yes, a furious, wrathful Müntzer ratchets things up.  He writes to Prince Friedrich III, Elector of Saxony, the count’s overlord; but no more dulcet tones, no more bowing and scraping.  After invoking princes whose righteous actions are the only ones to fear, Müntzer raises his voice, now raises it more than one notch, raises it by once again climbing up his father’s gibbet, where the rope is tied to the beam, to the very apex of misfortune and injustice, and from there, after inviting His Highness to condemn the oath by which princes terrify the people rather than earn their love, he evokes the sword, threatening: ‘Princes should not terrify the pious. But if that does happen, then the sword will be taken away from them and given to the wrathful. 

There it is: for perhaps the first time, it is heard. The sword will be taken away from them and given to the wrathful. (p.33)

It ends badly, of course.  Very badly, so I’m not sure that this lesson from history is of much value.  It’s short (did I say it was only 80 pages?) so it doesn’t take long to read.  But if you really care about reforming the global economy to make it more equitable, there are contemporary writers whose books are more relevant to the here and now.

On my TBR, I have The Politics of the Common Good by Jane R. Goodall, (see my summary of it from the Word For Word NF Festival 2019) and Talking to My Daughter about the Economy, by Yanis Varoufakis, translated by Jacob Moe and the author.  There are also regular (and shorter) essays about the economy in the Quarterly Essay series, the most recent of which was Dead Right – How Neoliberalism Ate Itself and What Comes Next by Richard Dennis.

Author: Éric Vuillard
Title: The War of the Poor (La Guerre des pauvres)
Translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti
Cover image: Thomas Müntzer c1600, background German Peasants’ War, engraving by Hems Schemsetin
Publisher: Picador, Pan Macmillan, 2021, first published 2009
ISBN: 9781529038538, hbk., 80 pages
Source: personal library



  1. […] The War of the Poor by Éric Vuillard (reviewed by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers) […]


  2. […] The War of the Poor by  Éric Vuillard (Lisa at ANZ Lit Lovers) […]


  3. Interesting! But perhaps not particularly essential right now… ;D


  4. My favourite rebel is Gerrard Winstanley and his Diggers (in the 1600s), successors of Wat Tyler – who was killed during “negotiations” with the King, so there’s a warning for you – but we need all the examples we can get as the mixed economy democracy we grew up with goes out the door once more.


    • Yes, a capitalist economy unrestrained by the any alternative is a scary thing.


  5. Events like #novnov are so handy for forcing us to take another look at longtime shelf-sitters and TBR ideas.


    • Yes, but alas, it doesn’t help to move the chunksters along…


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