“The Kill” by Emile Zola

I’ve just finished reading the 2004 English translation by
Arthur Goldhammer of Emile Zola’s novel The
Kill (La Curee), the second in the author’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 has aroused my interest in the author Emile Zola, whom,
after deeper research into his life and works, I’ve come to like and respect.


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 is depicted by massive public works which included
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 was rushing to
embrace new found gold-digging opportunities and how the government was wading
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, culminating
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.

“And Renee, as she watched these two apparitions emerge from
the dim shadows of the mirror, took a step backward and saw that Saccard had
tossed her out as a prize, an investment, and that Maxime had happened along to
pick up the gold coin the speculator had let drop. She had always been an asset
in her husband’s portfolio. He had encouraged her to wear gowns for a night and
take lovers for a season. He had rotated her in the flames of his forge, used
her as one might use a precious metal to gild the iron in his hands. Little by
little, the father had thus made her mad enough and miserable enough to accept
the son’s kisses. If Maxime was the impoverished blood of Saccard, she felt
that she was the fruit these two worms had ruined, the vileness at which both
had eaten away and in which both now lay coiled.”

One thought that emerged after reading the novel is that the
social norm in Paris under the Second
Empire seems to bear such a likeness to that in present-day China.
The same kind of cupidity; the same kind of ravenous appetite for conspicuous
consumption; the same kind of pervasive corruption; the same kind of immorality
and callousness in human relationships. Paris
in that particular epoch seems to be a reflection of any of today’s big Chinese
cities.

Another aspect the novel that has stuck in my mind is the
vivid description of how the speculator (Aristide Saccard) goes about his plots
to quietly devour private properties that he finds out on his job are earmarked
for resumption by government for infrastructure development and then have the
valuation jacked up (by virtue of bribing his cronies who sit on land
committees), before selling them back to government for a big fat compensation
in the land resumption process. A piece of crucial insider information is all
that is necessary to start the corruption engine. Ploys of such kind are
probably daily occurrences in the rising nation, if with minor twists here and
there. It reminds me of the corrupt official in the movie “Dwelling Narrowness”
(“蝸居”).

As suggested by the title of the novel, the hunting spoils
(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 powerless. This is not only the theme of the
novel. It is also a depiction of real life in a certain country.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Protected by WP Anti Spam