Some stories are too wonderful — too filled with wonders — to set in the present. They can’t really be called historical fiction because they don’t serve history so much as plunder it to invent what might have been. Such is the case with “Pure,” by Andrew Miller, a novel set during the Age of Enlightenment that pays homage not to the dawn of reason but to its witching hour, teeming with all that reason mocks — hobgoblins, specters and whatever else might be lurking in the dark. A novel of ideas disguised as a ghost story, voluptuously atmospheric, “Pure” exerts a sensual hold over the reader.
It is 1785. France is on the brink of revolution, with monarchy, like other outdated conceits, about to be swept away. Jean-Baptiste Baratte, ambitious and forward thinking, “a disciple of Voltaire,” dreams of building utopias where “all that offended” him can be “made good in the imagination,” and the church and its superstitions will be replaced by schools run by men like himself, “benign and educated.” An engineer with experience in mining, Baratte considers himself fortunate when he is awarded what he expects will be an enviable government commission. But what is it, exactly, that the unnamed minister working within the mirror-walled palace of Versailles wants him to do?
“At what point do you think they started to outnumber us?” the minister asks, slow to explain the job at hand. “Who, my lord?” Baratte replies. The answer is, of course, the dead, who are bursting the seams of Les Innocents, the cemetery that “has been swallowing the corpses of Paris for longer than anyone can remember,” its charnel pits having reputedly received 50,000 corpses during a single month of the bubonic plague.
Now a subterranean wall separating the necropolis from the city of the living has collapsed, and an effluvium of putrefaction is penetrating the dwellings around the cemetery, extinguishing candles, tainting food and even precipitating “moral disturbances, particularly among the young.” For the author’s purposes, cleaning up the mess is a metaphor grand enough to accommodate an existential battle between dark and light, outmoded and enlightened, decay and purity. And though it’s hardly the stuff of Baratte’s fantasies, “to sweep away . . . the poisonous influence of the past” is an assignment a modern-minded engineer can undertake with pride. “Use fire,” the not-so-modern minister suggests to Baratte, “use brimstone.”
The directive turns out to be more pragmatic than fanciful. Baratte’s first tour of Les Innocents reveals that the cemetery’s church, a place of “permanent twilight” where the “darkness has gathered in drifts,” is rotting from the inside out. Abandoned by its parishioners, the structure continues to shelter a peculiar cast of misfits: a sexton and his blooming fairy-tale rose of a granddaughter planted among the tombstones and somehow immune to the toxic emanations that cause others to faint; Armand, an organist who plays to the empty sanctuary; and Père Colbert, an old priest with a “murderous temper,” whose vision has been dimmed by a brush with “the Adversary.” Upon meeting them, Baratte understands that “it will be the living as much as the dead he will have to contend with.”
To open the graves, clear out the past and make way for the future will require a year of Baratte’s life. He employs a crew of 30 miners to accomplish the task and asks his old friend Lecoeur, the “fellow philosopher” with whom he worked in the mines, to oversee the excavation. Excited by the opportunity, like Baratte, Lecoeur has no idea what it will cost him to force Les Innocents to disgorge what seems an endless stream of corpses. While two females emerge as intact as sleeping vampires, most are reduced to unarticulated bones, destined to be stacked like kindling on horse-drawn tumbrels and removed under cover of night, lest the spectacle disturb the locals.
As for Baratte, the work of exiling the dead will cost him the self he values. Or perhaps it was merely the one to which he aspired. Why else would he need, at bedtime, to recite “a catechism of selfhood” that affirms his name, place of birth and career, as well as his belief in “the power of reason”? The engineer will sustain a serious blow to his head — yes, it’s that obvious — before he understands that the appointment he felt lucky to get has contaminated all his high-minded ideals, as it has the food and the air.
That’s just as well. Stories in which idealism smothers the attractions of corruption aren’t much fun. Were he in his right mind, Baratte would never fall prey to anything so radically à la mode as a suit of pistachio green silk, for which he trades the sensible brown jacket he inherited from his dead father, as well as a good amount of the money entrusted to him for the completion of the project. He wouldn’t find himself drawn to the organist, Armand, who enlists him in a band of merry vandals intent on defacing government notices with obscenities about the queen. He might not turn down the fast ripening charms of a cultured young woman for the company of a notorious whore.
A riptide of madness is but one of the dangers of descending into the underworld, a journey from which some will never return. For as long as it takes to empty Les Innocents, Baratte rents a room in a house on the perimeter of the cemetery and takes his meals with the owners, the Monnards, and their increasingly disturbed daughter, the beautiful Ziguette, whose breath stinks of the grave. While the corpse bride’s parents connive to wring a proposal out of Baratte, Ziguette, who opposes the destruction of Les Innocents “as if she felt the shovels on her own skin,” plots something far more sinister.
Soon unable to sleep without a sedative, unnerved by a peculiar scratching at his door, Baratte keeps vigil at his bedroom window, staring down at the graveyard and the miners as they huddle around the fires they have built among the graves. Shadows play, things lurk and scuttle. Tobacco to combat the stench; the anesthesia of alcohol; the company of prostitutes: how long can the miners be distracted as they go about their hideous task? Baratte discovers that his vision of the future is threatened less by ignorance than by his fellow man’s ineradicable lust for violence and mayhem. “Reason, coherence, these seem suddenly finite assets he might, this morning, tonight, next week, abruptly come to the end of.”
If “Pure” has a flaw, it’s that once the novel’s insistent metaphors begin to accumulate, from the mirrored halls of the court of the Sun King to the wolf-like creature prowling the charnel pits, they push an otherwise subtle narrative toward something a little too close to allegory. But Miller’s gift for characterization and ability to summon up a world that convinces absolutely, even though it never was, cut against the overt symbolism enough to excuse a flaw or two — especially as the irrational and occult whittle away at “the power of reason.” Heavens, if everyone behaved reasonably, novels might not exist at all.
Kathryn Harrison’s most recent novel, “Enchantments,” was published in March.