Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Debacle by Emile Zola

 (Book Review)

Regular readers of this blog may perhaps recall that I mentioned before I was reading this book, and that it was several months ago. This was one of those books I struggled to get through. I would often set it aside as I got distracted by other reading projects, pick it up again, and then get distracted again. My main motivation for finally finishing it was because of this book review project I’ve started, which I’m hoping will motivate me to finish off a lot of those half read books I have lying around the room.

According to the translator’s introduction, “The Debacle” is the 19th book in the Zola’s 20 book series: Les Rougon-Macquart. The series traced the lives and fortunes of one fictional family during the period of the second empire.

The Debacle” is the most famous and best selling of the series because it deals with the disastrous Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, still fresh in the minds of Zola’s readers when the book was published. However it is still the 19th book in a 20 book series, and it’s always a bit intimidating to jump in cold in the middle of a series.

Zola does his best to try and make the book accessible to new readers. The characters are all re-introduced, and what back-story is needed for understanding is given skillfully and subtly as the story progresses. This, plus the translator’s introduction makes it doable, but the first 50 or so pages are still a bumpy ride until you figure out who everybody is. You just kind of have to push your way through the beginning pages, and then the book becomes a lot more readable.

I bought this book because I was interested in the Paris Commune, but the book is mainly about the Franco-Prussian War, and specifically the French military disaster at Sedan. Neither Paris nor the Commune even enter into the story until the last 50 pages of a 500 page book.

The battle at Sedan, which takes up a good portion of the book, is pretty interesting in itself though. According to the translator’s introduction, Zola researched the battle thoroughly, and talked to so many eye-witnesses, that every incident in the book is based on an incident someone reported to him in real life.

Perhaps this is just me, but I tend to often think of history as divided into ancient warfare (Punic wars) and modern warfare (World War II). Zola’s portrait of the war in 1871 gives a picture of the warfare in a stage of transition. Airplanes and aerial bombardment have not yet been invented, but Zola describes how the shelling from the Prussian batteries destroys many of the houses in Sedan, and kills many of the innocent people.

I also got a very clear picture of the amount of bravery needed to charge into a hailstorm of enemy bullets, like many of Zola’s characters are forced to do in the battle.

Zola does a good job of describing the horrors of the war, and in some ways this book can almost be thought of as a prequel to “All Quiet on the Western Front”, especially since the Franco-Prussian War was the war that created the conditions for World War I (as Karl Marx predicted at the time). Zola didn’t live to see World War I, but the optimistic note he ends his book on was obviously not born out by history, which makes the book all the more tragic, and, as the translator notes, “Zola’s vision of war as the tyranny of the powerful over the innocent makes ‘The Debacle’ a disturbing prophecy of the 20th century”.

Despite the fact that Zola was a liberal republican, anti-clerical and anti-emperor, he was not a radical and does not paint a positive picture of the Paris Commune. The Communards are described as scoundrels, and the villain of the book, the scoundrel Chouteau, is portrayed as one of the typical revolutionaries. Zola is so anti-commune that the translator recommends reading Karl Marx’s “The Civil War in France” as a counter-balance to Zola.

It just so happens that I was indeed reading “The Civil War in France” at the same time, and the comparisons are interesting. For instance, Zola portrays the burning of Parisian buildings as the height of the Commune’s depravity. “It was the fires more than anything else which infuriated him. Burn down houses and public buildings just because you weren’t the strongest, no, that was really the end! Only criminals could be capable of such things.

Marx, on the other hand, makes the point that in every single other war it is considered a simple part of warfare to burn down buildings. He cites the example of the British burning down Washington DC, and notes there was no outrage about that incident (in Europe at least). Why, asks Marx, should it be wrong for the Proletariat to burn buildings in their struggle, when the Bourgeois routinely burn down each other’s building in their warfare?

However Zola shares Marx repulsion at the bloody repression following the fall of the commune. “The butchery was frightful: men and even children condemned on just one piece of evidence, such as hands dirty with powder or feet that happened to be wearing army boots; innocent people falsely denounced, victims of personal vendettas, screaming explanations but unable to make themselves heard; droves of people herded in front of rifle-barrels, so many poor devils at once that there were not enough bullets to go round and the wounded were finished off with the butts of rifles. Blood ran in streams and carts were taking away the bodies from morning till night. All over the city executions were going on…”

Also like Marx, Zola notes that the mass executions were made all the more horrible by the fact that the bourgeois were laughing and enjoying themselves in cafes while all of this was going on.

A couple more brief notes before I wrap this up.

1). Because this is a war story, and because it is the second to last book in the series and Zola is starting to kill everyone off, a lot of people die. It’s a sad book. I don’t mind if a story is sad, but I hate it when I feel like the author is trying to manipulate my emotions. I want to feel the sadness naturally from the circumstances. Zola wants to make each death as tragic as possible however. A man has visions of his wife and family just before he is executed, another dies clutching a love letter, another is killed by his best friend during the civil war in Paris. And lots of sad speeches. I thought it was a bit over the top.

2). I think I gained weight because of this book. There were lots of descriptions about how hungry the soldiers were, or how much they enjoyed bread, cheese, wine and coffee. After reading this book in the teachers lounge, as soon as work got out I would buy a bunch of bread and cheese and coffee (I substituted grape juice for the wine).

Link of the Day
My favorite takes on the State of the Union Address
From Phil:
Arresting Cindy Sheehan is so lame and wussed-out I don't even want to talk about it. If my son had died in this war, I'd be camping outside Bush's stupid little ranch too.
Everybody I know listened to the SOTU address. I honestly no longer see the point. He doesn't mean anything he says. Remember when we our bold new national challenge was going to Mars? Remember when steroids were the new threat facing our youth? Screw it, I could be alphabetizing my toenails.

From Sarah:
pres. bush...the state of your union is kind of a disaster. i mean, thank you for mentioning plans to reduce the use of oil. thank you for talking about the environment at all! but, if your promises about the environment are anything like your promises to "end terror" i just have to sigh

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