Book Review — The Belly of Paris

The Belly of Paris (Les Rougon-Macquart #3)
Emile Zola
originally published 1873,
reprint with introduction and translation by Mark Kurlansky, Modern Library, 2009

We all have that one book that we feel that we should have read but just never got around to. For me, that book was Emile Zola’s The Belly of Paris or The Fat and the Thin, as it was originally titled. This is a disappointment, because, having finally read it, I regret not having made the effort sooner, if only so that I would have had more opportunities to read it over and over again in my lifetime. This is an issue that I fully intend to address in future, but still, had I first read this as a teenager, I’d surely have read it at least a dozen more times in the interim years, so brilliant is this work of fiction.

Set in and around Les Halles market in Paris just after the new buildings were erected in the 1850s, The Belly of Paris tells the story of Florent Quenu, wrongly arrested and sent to prison, escaped and returned to his brother, a chef who now runs a successful charcuterie shop on a street near the fish monger section of Les Halles.

The third book in a 20-part series, (The Rougon-Macquart books follow the lives of a fictional family over multiple generations), The Belly of Paris speaks to the politics of the day (plenty of uprisings and upheaval in the years after the French Revolution), and Zola offers both serious and comedic characters as he tells the story of two brothers and their disparate lives and life choices.

In a setting of so much plenty, Zola explores the disparity of the Fats (the well-to-do bourgeois) and the Thins (those always struggling, often with not enough to eat despite their environment). Malice, jealousy and petty gossip propel the story to its heartbreaking but not unexpected ending.

The selling point here is Zola’s detailed, breath-taking imagery. The descriptions of food throughout the market last for pages at a time and in other works of food fiction, this might get tedious, but Zola is so adept at his descriptions, the reader can’t help but imagine themselves there, amid the chaos and bustle, surrounded by the noise and smells of the market. One particular scene, set in a fromagerie and since referred to as “the cheese symphony” is so vivid, so enrapturing, that if the reader can’t place themselves in that shop, smelling those strong, moldering cheeses in the hot summer afternoon, then that reader should give up reading books altogether.

The Belly of Paris is the ultimate work of food fiction which all other novelists choosing to include food in their works must aspire to. I recommend buying a copy (the entire series is now public domain and can be had in ebook format for under $2), so you can read it again and again, as I intend to do. However, the 2009 printing — translated by food writer Mark Kurlansky — is worth seeking out, as Kurlansky’s notes offer a very comprehensive and detailed exploration of the political issues of the time, which might not be known to readers unfamiliar with French history and politics of the era.

Final thought — why has nobody made The Belly of Paris into a film???

Book Review — Pomegranate Soup

Pomegranate Soup
Marsha Mehran
Random House, 2006

It’s 1986 and three Iranian sisters find themselves in the small town of Ballinacroagh, County Mayo, Ireland. They arrive suddenly, taking over a long-closed bakery space with plans to rush an opening of a Persian-themed cafe in only five days. They have escaped Iran via Pakistan and London, fleeing both the revolution and some personal demons.

Not all of the small town is receptive to their presence, including their neighbour, the publican, who had his hopes set on taking over the former Italian bakery to open a disco, never mind that the disco trend has long since passed.

Over time, with welcoming food, exotic spices, flavourful tea, and a desire to be part of the community, Marjan, Bahar, and Layla find acceptance and safety, but not without some small town drama to spice things up.

What starts out as a seemingly cozy story with a touch of magical realism (it’s rural Ireland, so there’s references to leprechauns and spirits, plus some allusions to the medical and spiritual aspects of the spices Marjan uses) goes to some dark places as we learn the story of the trio of women and how they have come to be in this town. They each have their own memories of Iran, and most of them are haunting. Behar is plagued with headaches and lives in fear of putting her sisters in further danger.

Mehran wrote this novel intending it to be the first in a series of seven books. She completed a follow-up, Rosewater and Soda Bread, but died tragically during the writing of the third book, leaving the story of the sisters incomplete. While Pomegranate Soup (named after the traditional Iranian dish which twice plays a vital role in the plot) ends on a happy note, the overall story feels incomplete — tied up with a bow, albeit a very loose one — with some characters requiring more fleshing out; presumably Mehran planned to do this with further titles.

As a work of food-themed fiction, Mehran creates good flow between the very descriptive passages about the food and the rest of the non-food bits of the story. Her descriptions of the flavourful, heady-scented Iranian dishes and teas are evocative and inviting, and she makes the food central to the overall plot. Recipes for pertinent dishes are included after each chapter as well and are a really nice touch.

Many reviewers on sites such as Goodreads have compared Pomegranate Soup (often unfavourably) to stories like Chocolat — the idea of the foreign or outsider woman setting up a food business in a small, conservative town and winning over the people there. But many of the aspects of the plot come from Mehran’s own life. Her family fled Iran during the revolution in the late 70s and ended up in Argentina where her parents ran a small Persian cafe. She married an Irishman and ended up living in a small town in Ireland, no doubt where she got the idea for the town and likely many of the townspeople. She even gives one of the minor characters an illness related to her gastro-intestinal system, which the author herself suffered from and later died from.

Rosewater and Soda Bread is in my “to read” pile, and I’m interested to see where Mehran takes these characters. There were enough loose ends here that the plot has many places it could go. I’m just sad that the world lost Mehran before she could complete the whole series.