Saturday, April 26, 2014

Book Review - "The Kill" ("La Curee") by Emile Zola

I read The Kill (La Curee) about three years ago and liked it so much as to have written a long review of it in my Asia Sentinel (an online magazine) blog. I’ve dug out that review and have shortened it a bit for sharing here.

The Kill (La Curee) is the second in Emile Zola’s twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart saga, which is a fictional historical account of a family under France’s Second Empire, a semi-despotic, semi-parliamentary kleptocracy of Louis Bonaparte Napoleon III. This novel aroused my interest in the author Emile Zola, whom, after deeper research into his life and works, I’ve come to like and respect.

As suggested by the title of the novel, the hunting spoils (the French term is “la curee”) are rewards for the hounds for killing the quarry. In allegorical interpretation, spoils of economic development are rewards for those callous enough to prey on the weak and vulnerable. This is the main theme of the novel.

The story of The Kill is set in Paris during the reign of the Second Empire, a city that was undergoing dramatic transformations highlighted by greed, graft and conspicuous consumption. The background setting features massive public works which include demolition of broad swaths of old Paris for the construction of spacious boulevards and widespread expansion of railroads. The social backdrop tells of how the middle-class rushes to embrace new-found gold-digging opportunities and how the government wades knee-deep in corruption and cronyism.

“From the very first days Aristide Saccard sensed the approach of this rising tide of speculation, whose spume would one day cover all of Paris. He followed its progress closely. He found himself smack in the middle of the torrential downpour of gold raining down on the city’s roofs. In his incessant turns around city hall, he had caught wind of the vast project to transform Paris, of the plans for demolition, of the new streets and hastily planned neighborhoods, and of the massive wheeling and dealing in land and buildings that had ignited a clash of interests across the capital and set off an unbridled pursuit of luxury…..”

Against this background, the main story line centers on Aristide Saccard’s rapacious graft at the government office and his coldhearted exploitation of his beautiful but soulless wife Renee, and simultaneously threads through a materially decadent and morally depraved period of her life, which culminates in her engagement in incest with her step-son Maxime. The story ends with an abrupt and cruel shattering of Renee’s self-indulgent delusions, her heartbreak caused by her discovery of her husband’s and Maxime’s heartless betrayal of her. Her tragic end has a dark symbolic ring to it.

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