"The Kill" by Emile Zola

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.