Dan Sandman

40: The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola

In Books, Fiction on 30/09/2016 at 12:00 pm

the-belly-of-paris-by-emile-zolaFlorent has come out of imprisonment to live with his brother Quenu and his sister-in-law Lisa, who run a family butcher shop in the busy Paris market area. The butcher’s is full of talkative locals, playful children and lashings of pork based produce for sale. Everywhere, against a meaty backdrop, ordinary people talk about the price of fish and go about their daily business. Being a bit of an outsider, with a world view formed by his reading of books, Florent takes a while to settle into life with his less educated relatives. Eventually, Lisa encourages him to take up a job as some sort of inspector on the fish market, replacing a character who has been taken ill by the deadly consumption (which we now call tuberculosis and can easily cure with antibiotics).

In the languorous style of which Zola is famed, the story unfolds at an extremely leisurely pace. Readers are not really encouraged to follow the plot for enjoyment, but rather asked to appreciate the deeply descriptive language — which can regurgitate like a sickly rich chocolate cake. Every nook and cranny of the market, each naturally drawn character, is written with absolute definitive clarity and control of language, placing the reader under a magical spell with the sheer power and magnificent of the writer’s ambition. This is exactly the sort of sprawling improvisation of which creative writing courses discourage their students from aspiring to. It works because it is done with great intellectual and moral force.

I wouldn’t recommend this book to a vegetarian. The whole tale is full to the brim with epic descriptions of dripping meat and stinking fish. Barely can a page be turned without the whiff of a mackerel wafting up one’s nose; or the steam of a boiling pot evaporating across one’s eyes. Pick up the book at almost any point, and you will find nineteenth century post-revolutionary Paris as defined by the food of the marketplace. According to Zola, the history of the French people is the history of food — it’s production, movements and the internal politics of fish prices. He seems on a mission to celebrate the beauty of routine daily living; a world away from the arguments that buzz around the rooms of the cafes and bars of this microcosm of society. Being a good sort of person, Flourent finds contentment by mucking in with his family and becoming part of this close-knit community of gossipers and oddballs.

I look forward to seeing what happens later.


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