The Belly of Paris is a unique, fast-paced novel about justice, revolution, and hunger. It is the third book in a 20-part series titled Les Rougon-Macqyart. The series examines two branches of a family: the respectable (legitimate) side, and the disreputable (illegitimate.)
The third installment follows Florent Quenu, a French convict who escaped exile in French Guiana after six years of imprisonment due to a false accusation. The novel opens with a scene after his return to Paris; in the scene, his unconscious body is found on a road by a merchant on her way to a marketplace called Les Halles.
At once we feel pity for this man who is broken and lost in the world. He spends a great deal of time reminiscing on his horrific escape and the journey back home. Only when he acquires a job and independence does he find his personality, and in it we see how anger has blackened his heart. He wants to revolt against the government.
Quoting a paragraph from the novel, Florent is convinced that “it was his calling to avenge his thinness against this city that had grown fat while those who defended justice starved in exile, he was a self-appointed avenger, and he dreamed of rising up, right in Les Halles, and crushing this regime of drunks and gluttons.”
To understand Florent’s political motives, it is necessary to know about the author. Emile Zola was a major figure in the political liberalization of France. His views led him to become a controversial man, especially after the publication of his political article, J’acusse. The article called for exoneration of the falsely accused army officer Alfred Dreyfus. Following the backlash, Zola was persecuted for libel; he was forced to escape to England to avoid imprisonment.
The oddest thing about The Belly of Paris is its description. Zola can make the gloomiest scenes comical with his descriptions of food. Vegetables, cheese, beef–all are used to set the mood for good times and bad. What a character eats is a major element in describing their personalities–class and wealth are shown by whether they eat fresh sausage and cheese for dinner, or are forced to beg for leftovers.
The beautiful fruits were on display, delicately arranged with the roundness of their cheeks, half-hidden in the baskets like faces of beautiful children, partly concealed by leaves. The peaches were especially beautiful, peaches from Montreuil with clear, soft skin like northern girls’ and yellow sunburned peaches from the Midi, tanned like Provençal women. The apricots lying in moss had the amber glow of sunset shining on dark-haired girls.
Zola wanted to write a novel where the city of Paris herself was a character; in this book, he did a fantastic job. With poignant characters and backstories, he plays with readers’ emotions, blurring the line between right and wrong. One day I hope to read all twenty books and see the character of Paris as seen by one of the boldest authors of his time.