An absurdist fable about leadership and our hunger to be misled
With his second novel, The Waffle Factory, Roman Helinski has given us a modern-day Animal Farm, only now the setting is industrial and it’s people not animals caught up in the machinations of power. In the factory, as in Orwell’s farmyard dystopia, some are more equal than others.
Waffles are waffles. For decades they have been rolling off the factory conveyor belt according to the same tired old production process. Of course there’s hygiene and health and safety to consider, but where’s the harm in turning a blind eye now and then? And while workers are under strict orders to keep their hands off the merchandise, munching a waffle on the fly is one of life’s little perks.
Wannes is in charge of the oven, while Patrick works in the warehouse. Down on the production line, it’s the ladies who rule the roost. ‘Men are just not up to the physical and psychological rigours of the factory floor.’ Big Gerda is the forewoman, a formidable buffer between the workers and the Board of Directors. Mathilda, the only girl in the factory with a winning white smile, is having it off with the CEO. Meanwhile the boss man himself has a hotline to Tokyo and is a fervent believer in hands-off management.
What has long been considered normal practice suddenly takes on a whole new aspect when the bloke standing next to you sees things in a different light. Arka Narovski – bald, muscular and seven feet tall – even has his colleagues focusing on the invisible. ‘Why do we need to look at the air?’ Big Gerda asks. ‘Trust me,’ Arka grins.
Before long Arka has his fellow workers eating out of the palm of his hand. In the thrall of his steely charisma, they are all too willing to overlook his shortcomings. The mighty Pole – or is he Russian? – gives them the guts to break with time-honoured regulations. Though his ultimate objective remains a mystery, the workers obey Arka’s commandments without a second thought and the old factory regime starts to crumble. A strike is held, a section of the factory burns down and the world is turned upside down. The sacrifices Arka demands are absurd and cruel, yet everyone follows him blindly.
With an effortless knack for presenting the extraordinary as everyday, Helinski instantly makes the reader feel right at home in and around the factory. We empathise completely with the workers’ infatuation for the Polish giant – or is he Russian? The result is a timeless novel about how simple it can be to mislead an entire group, and about our hunger to be misled.