= The recurrent themes
The opening line struck me that apparently Zola liked to open his narrative with two themes:
First, the contrast between procession and unmoved inhuman things. As was with The Kill (with congestion of carriages leaving Bois de Boulogne), The Belly of Paris, too, is opened with carts of fruits and vegetables heading to Les Halles (the central food market) in slow procession: "Through the deep silence of the deserted avenue, the carts made their way towards Paris, the rhythmic jolting of the wheels echoing against the fronts of the sleeping houses on both sides of the road, behind the dim shapes of elm." It seems to point out how the corrupt society is dragging the nation towards destruction.
Second, a stranger coming into and then installed onto an existing community (Étienne Lantier to the mine pit in Germinal, Octave Mouret to the department store in The Ladies Paradise, and now Florent to Les Halles).
= Two histories
Les Halles is a symbol of modernism (and the consequences) the Second Empire has brought to Paris in 19th century. Les Halles was a vast structure of twelve pavilions made with iron and glass in the avant-garde architecture, built by Victor Baltard in 1850s. Each pavilion housed different market of foods: fish and poultry, fruit, herbs, and vegetables, flower, meat, butter and cheese, tripe, game, etc. It was located in the district of Le Cimetière des Innocents (Holy Innocents Cemetery), which was decommissioned, and the bones was transferred to the Catacombes, before being replaced by the herbs and vegetables market in 1787.
There were two groups of markets at Les Halles. The stall holders sell their products within the pavilions, while smaller vendors installed their pitches on the pavement around the pavilions, paying lower tax than the stall holders. It was finally demolished in 1971, and nowadays becomes Forum Des Halles, an underground shopping center connected with an underground lines and metro transit.
Following the lead of The Fortune of the Rougons, Florent Quenu, the protagonist, is a Republican who was deported to Cayenne (Devil's Island) after the Louis-Napoleon coup d'état (December 1851). After his escape from Cayenne, he went to Dutch Guiana for several years, before plucking enough courage to return to Paris.
= Cathedral and forest
Brian Nelson, a prominent Zola expert and translator of the Oxford World Classic edition I'm reading, wrote in the explanatory notes, that Zola has suggested that Les Halles are the cathedral of modern life: "He aimed explicitly to play on Victor Hugo's famous novel Notre-Dame de Paris."
What the cathedral represents, then? Is it the hugeness, unreachable, overwhelming (or even oppressive) of the modernization of Paris, that engulfed the working classes? "...the gigantic size of Les Halles, whose heavy breathing - the result of the excesses of the day before."
Zola even made one of the characters (which has not appeared yet on chapter one) as the Quasimodo of Les Halles. Interesting, eh? Nelson also suggested that Zola associated the image of forest with that of a cathedral. "The shadows, in the hollows of the roof, seemed to make the forest of pillars even bigger, and multiply to infinity the delicate ribs, fretted galleries, and transparent shutters. [..] there appeared to be a mass of luxuriant vegetation, a monstrous jungle of metal, with spindle-shaped stems and knotted branches, covering the vast expanse as with the delicate foliage of some ancient forest." That threw new lights on the forest in The Sin of Abbe Mouret... but that's of another book.
= Florent and the excess of food
The character of Florent provided Zola with an unmistakable irony of a thin, haggard, starving man who is entrapped in the midst of overflowing foods in Les Halles. Combining it with his fear that the government will find and catch him, made him the perfect embodiment of the excessive luxury and pleasure of the bourgeoisie, while the working class are struggling with poverty, slum, and injustices.
Claude Lantier made his first appearance in this book, before appearing in as main protagonist in The Masterpiece. He is reflecting Cezanne (physically), and Zola in his enthusiasm and views towards Les Halles. With his painter's eyes, Claude sees Les Halles as a beautiful landscape subject with beautiful colors, however with his heart, he condemns how the nature is abused to serve the uncontrollable appetite of the bourgeoisie: "Those bourgeois bastard eat it all."
That's all I've got from chapter one. I am now in the middle of chapter two, which was picturing the busy, noisy life of Les Halles. Let's see where it would bring us...