The Belly of Paris

bellypfparis_ZolaThe Belly of Paris is Les Halles, the great food market celebrated by Emile Zola in this 1873 novel. The only previous book I have read by Zola is the more famous Nana. I liked this one better because — I was about to say –of the more realistic people and situations. That’s not quite it. Zola is called a realist, but he uses his very sensual descriptions to make emotional points. For example, when the old gossips get together to tittle tattle with each other they meet in the cheese market.

All around them the cheeses were stinking…. A parmesan added its aromatic tang to the thick, dull smell of the others…. Then came the strong-smelling cheeses…. and, finally, stronger than all the others, the olivets, wrapped in walnut leaves, like the carcasses of animals which peasants cover with branches as they lie rotting in the hedgerow under the blazing sun.

Florent, an idealistic revolutionary, has escaped from his unjust imprisonment on Cayenne (Devils Island) and returned to Paris where he works in Les Halles and plans the downfall of the very Bourgeois government. He knows the sumptuous market is not the place for him. In his very difficult life he has become thin and he identifies with the thin people. Les Halles is the place of supply for the fat people, and the fat people include his half brother, his sister-in-law and all the people who mock his ideals. Florent is not eloquent but his artist friend is.

Claude shook his fist at them. He was exasperated by all this joyousness in the streets and on the rooftops. He cursed the Fat people, for they had won. All around he could see nothing but Fat people, increasing ins size, bursting with health, greeting another day of eating and digesting.

The sadness of the ending is not just that Florent’s impractical schemes have failed. The sadness is that the fat people prefer eating and drinking to the pursuit of justice.

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