Crainquebille, by Anatole France
Five out of five stars
This book of social satire was developed as a consequence of the Dreyfus incident, where the underlying anti-Semitism of France was brought into public view. Originally written in 1903 as a comedy in three acts, the main character of Crainquebille (old Bill of Paris) is a poor street vendor of vegetables out of a cart. He is falsely accused of insulting a policeman and even though a physician passerby comes to his defense, telling the officer and the judge that Bill is innocent, he is put in jail.
While there he discovers that he gets regular meals and has decent shelter, something he is unaccustomed to. When he is released, he is shunned as a criminal by his former customers and his life spirals downward to even greater destitution. It is a sad tale of a poor man that discovers that his society really has no use or care for him.
This is a story where the reader should be aware of the historical context before reading it. A tragi-comedy in the classic sense, it exposes aspects of society that have not changed, although there has been some improvement in the century since it was written.