Thursday 18 October 2018

Review: Fiction: Pure by Andrew Miller

Sceptre, €16.99

Andrew Miller, born in Bristol but an Irish resident until recently, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2001 with his novel Oxygen. This new book will, in my opinion, get at least that far in 2011.

The story in Pure is simple, almost dreamlike, a realistic fantasy, a violent fairy tale for adults.

Set in Paris in 1785, just before the French Revolution, Pure tells how Jean-Baptiste Baratte, an engineer, is hired by the state to excavate an enormous cemetery beneath the church of Les Innocents in the centre of the city and dispose of the thousands of bodies interred there.

Baratte has grand if rather battered aspirations -- he and a friend called Lecoeur invent an ideal society, Valenciana, a place which derives its name not from Valencia in Spain but from Valenciennes, their hellishly filthy coalmining hometown in rural Normandy.

Lecoeur and a gang of miners join Baratte in Paris to do the badly needed work. The area around Les Innocents stinks to high heaven, because the ground is so saturated with human fat that bodies don't decompose properly. And yet some of the residents of the area, including the family that Baratte has digs with, are shocked by the prospect of change. One of them, Ziguette, a beautiful young woman, attacks him in the middle of the night with a hammer.

Not surprisingly this leaves Baratte with a headache. Miller, who has written a novel called Ingenious Pain, writes about migraine in a way that sufferers from the malady will appreciate.

Before Baratte is attacked he makes friends with Armand, the organist in Les Innocents. One of the favours Armand does for this country bumpkin is to dress him in the height of fashion: the fact that the tailor is Charvet, the maker of Charlie Haughey's shirts, is a joke that will not be lost on Miller's Irish readers.

Armand is, like Baratte, something of an idealist, but of a more radical sort. One night he brings Baratte out on an excursion writing anti-monarchist graffiti on the walls of prominent buildings, a dangerous thing to do at a time when dissidents faced life in the Bastille.

Another of Baratte's friends, a kindly and humane doctor, is soon to become immortal for inventing a most inhumane machine -- the doctor's name is Guillotin.

But the person Baratte grows closest to is the mysterious Héloise, a prostitute who specialises in indulging the peculiar perversions of her clients: one of them, for instance, pays her to ask him questions about his trade, basketmaking, while he plays with her stockings. Héloise is the one 'pure' character in the book. Her love saves Baratte. She is -- and this stretches the elastic of the fairytale to breaking-point -- the original whore with a heart of gold.

All of the private dramas reach a climax in the public resolution of the problem of the disposal of the bodies buried beneath the church. It would spoil the prospective reader's enjoyment to give away too many details of what happens. Suffice to say that death is done; a most unexpected character commits suicide; a great fire is started, and sex is attempted with a mummified corpse (though not in that order).

The mood of the ending, indeed of the whole book, is hectic yet curiously dead-pan: the violence is damped down with valium and the love story adds a bit of sugar to the pill.

Pure is also a deeply political novel. The underlying conflict is between the repressive past, represented by Les Innocents, and the future, which tears down the old church and lets in the light. But, as the revolution was soon to show, with freedom comes terror.

Miller is an intelligent writer: he has constructed here a semi-mythical story that depends for its effects largely on cruelty, but he also knows that myths are, as one of his characters says of architecture, "mostly air".

What redeems the putrid atmosphere is Miller's ability to see it through "the liquorice shimmer of a human eye". At its best Pure shimmers.

Brian Lynch is a novelist, poet and screenwriter

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