French tale of life, death and decay
By the end of the 14th Century Les Innocents, the oldest Christian burial ground in central Paris, was full.
Once emptied, a pit with room for 1,500 bodies would be filled up again. In a single month, 50,000 plague victims were buried there.
Over the years, the cemetery metamorphosed into a series of greasy, rancid tussocks, the ground incapable of further decomposition.
Sanitary conditions in the surrounding area were intolerable. The city was being poisoned.
A series of decrees limiting use of the cemetery did little to alleviate the situation. In 1780, a cellar wall in a house bordering Les Innocents collapsed under the weight of excess bodies, debouching human remains and putrid, infected mud.
A royal edict finally put a stop to all interments. It was determined that three large burial grounds would be created on the outskirts of the city. All existing parish cemeteries within city limits were condemned.
In 1785, the king declared Les Innocents the site of a future herb and vegetable market.
It is at this point, more or less, that the action of Andrew Miller's latest novel begins.
A young engineer from the provinces, Jean-Baptiste Baratte -- well educated, ambitious, socially raw and with uncertain leadership qualities -- is summoned to Versailles and offered a commission he cannot refuse. He must eliminate Les Innocents: dismantle the church, destroy the cemetery, dispose of its jumbled, anonymous, piecemeal occupants.
As he and his team of Flemish miners uncover the nameless dead, Baratte's identity is itself almost snuffed out by the gruesome realities of his task.
The engineer comes to realise that, while the dead are appallingly different from us, the true horror lies in their proximity to the living.
Just as he thinks walls and boundaries have been secured, they give way; as edifices fall down, characters disintegrate; words vanish and friendships dissolve.
Sex and death are close relations; Baratte visits a brothel and marvels at a prostitute displayed in a translucent shroud. In one of the most vividly realised of many Gothic moments, the bodies of two beautiful young women are discovered in a mass grave, perfectly intact, "like a pair of dried flowers".
The onlookers' initial reactions of fear and awe give way to scientific curiosity and then something more prurient, with terrible consequences.
Pure is mercifully free of franglais; in fact, other than the names of places and people, there is barely any French in this book. But Miller cleverly maintains our sense of being in foreign territory by having as his central character a man to whom Paris is a frightening novelty.
Miller lingers up close on details: sour breath, decaying objects, pretty clothes, flames, smells, eyelashes. He is a close observer of cats.
He is also alive to the dramatic possibilities offered by late-18th-Century Paris, a fetid and intoxicating city on the brink of revolution.
Excavations at Les Innocents began in the mid-1780s and finished only two years before the storming of the Bastille; although Baratte himself can't see it, Miller repeatedly suggests a connection between the two events.
The disinterment of countless human beings at Les Innocents was a horribly overdue civic necessity, but Pure intimates that it was also about liquidating history, about fighting the suffocating presence of what was perceived to be an unenlightened past.
Like all big clean-ups, the destruction of Les Innocents involved violence. Miller intimately imagines how it might have felt to witness it.