Just finished reading Mark Kurlansky’s translation of Emile Zola’s Belly of Paris – a Christmas gift from my in laws. While I haven’t enjoyed much fiction in the last few years, this classic read very much like a historical culinary portrait of the Les Halles in the 1850’s. Zola spins a tale of mystery and intrigue, politics, philosophy and business, love and hate, families torn apart, friends and foes switching roles from one instant to the other, all set in the marketplace and local shops in this Paris neighbourhood.
The writing draws at all your sense – Zola writes of the sights, tastes, textures, sounds, but most of all the smells of Les Halles. From a part where the local gossips are figuring out what Florent’s, the main character, secret history may be, the cheese shop where they gather takes on a living part in the scene, adding to the conspiratorial conversation:
The Camembert had a scent like venison and had won out over less assertive smells such as the Marolles and Limbourgs. It exhaled more extensively, smothering the other smalls with its surprising amount of foul breath. Into this powerful assertion, the Parmesan still periodically added a thin high note as from a panpipe while the Bries kept thudding like damp tambourines.
Earlier descriptions of the Quenu-Gradelles charcuterie make you want to pack your bags, jump into a time traveling machine, and visit the charming shop in Paris first hand. And while this is a book in the middle of Zola’s series, it does well as a stand alone book. Well done, Kurlansky, for doing such a great job translating this work – very readable, yet still poetic, but true to the post-romantic style.