Sunday, April 22, 2007

food novel, tidying, balloon

I have just finished Emile Zola's novel Le Ventre de Paris. I read it slowly and with great enjoyment. It is the story of Florent, a political convict who has escaped from Devil's Island and returned to Paris soon after the completion of the Les Halles food market, in the 1860s. He takes refuge in the house of his brother, who is a charcutier and his sister-in-law, la belle Lisa. The story takes us through Florent's return to political activity and the growing clash of temperament and personality with the well fed and contented stall holders and tradesmen in the market. It tracks the growing hostility of Lisa ,who sees her livelihood and comfortable existence threatened by the presence her brother-in-law. Typical of a number of set pieces, where the descriptions of the market and its attendant trades are skillfully woven into the plot, is one, where Florent describes his escape with a friend. The scene is the kitchen of the charcuterie. His brother and assistants are making black pudding. His niece, a girl of nine is sitting on his knee by the fire and asks him to tell her the story of "the man who gets eaten by wild animals". Lisa is sewing. It is Florent's friend who was eaten by wild animals. But he tells the whole story, where he himself nearly dies of starvation, in the third person. It is hard to know which is more gruesome - the story of his ordeal in the jungle or the preparation of the boudin. As he tells the story, jugs of pigs blood are brought into the kitchen and onions are fried in giants saucepans on the stove; the blood is stirred into the onions, and the sausage mixture stuffed into pigs' intestines and curled up like a hose for further cooking. The contrast between the tall, emaciated and essentially gentle Florent and his plump audience is at the heart of the book.

I tidy up in the garden, cut back excesses amid burgeoning plants, and savour the smell of sap released in the sunshine.

As I sit in the garden with a cup of tea, a red balloon sails overhead. Its retaining string waives loose like a tail. It seems to know where it is going.

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