July 25: do I eat a dead man’s chicken?

When you are reading a novel or watching a film, you often become aware of the schematisation of the storyline, what in modern media jargon is called the arc. In a modern thriller you can almost set your watch for the timings of the first car chase; a story is plotted so that every detail has a subordinated relevance to the monolithic plot. No details are unaccounted for.
In fact, the pleasures of a fiction are in part the fact that the material is streamlined into the thrust of the dominant narrative, but also in part the randomness of material that does not fit into an overall scheme, the pleasures of what is not accounted for. The 19th Century novelist Emile Zola is often characterised as an overly controlling narrator with a didactic socio-economic programme behind every storyline, his version of ‘naturalism’ which aimed to document in a quasi-scientific way the culture of the time. But in Zola, as in any great creator of narrative, place is left for the random, the stuff that doesn’t fit, for it is often there that the most acute insight seeps through. In his early novel ‘Therese Raquin’ (1867) the central scene of the text is the murder of a husband by his wife and her lover. The trio have ordered a chicken in a river-side restaurant and taken a boat out on the Seine for an hour while it is being cooked. The husband is drowned during the boating trip on the river and the killing is passed off as an accident. In the description of this scene Zola tangentially notes the presence of a boat of rowers (‘canotiers’) a little further upstream. They are the ones who come to the aid of the victims of the apparently tragic accident that leaves Camille the husband dead. They help the two survivors, Therese and her lover Laurent, make it to shore. The charming random moment in the narration of the murder comes at the end of the chapter when Zola drily notes that it was the rowers from the rowing boat who ended up eating the dead man’s chicken. This tiny detail shows the range of Zola’s empathy. He is not just subordinating all the narrative to the admittedly key murder, he also sees the incident from the perspective of the peripheral characters of the rowers, who are (we imagine) left with the moral decision of deciding on whether or not to eat the roast chicken of a dead man, now going spare. Zola pans out and shows us the action from a wider, more quotidian perspective, which is also more realistic as we the readers mostly play the roles of the canotiers (the rowers) in life, peripheral observers of high drama. But we all have our own moral issues, however minor. Mostly the questions for us are not: do I murder a man who getting is in the way of what I want but, rather, do I eat a dead man’s chicken?


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