Andrew Miller’s new novel stinks.
What do you expect? It’s full of thousands upon thousands of rotting bodies. No zombies — just good old-fashioned corpses crammed into a Parisian cemetery for more than 500 years.
The general background of “Pure” is true: The Church of the Saints Innocents was founded in the Middle Ages and eventually became the largest cemetery in Paris. You think you have storage problems? One early-15th-century plague added 50,000 bodies in a few weeks. Giant pits held more than 1,000 bodies apiece until the ground was so packed that older corpses were dug up and stored to make room for new ones. Nearby buildings collapsed under the pressure. (Purell! Purell!) By the mid-18th century, the atmosphere grew toxic: Merchants complained that their wine quickly turned to vinegar and their meat rotted, pedestrians fainted and sickened. But the Mother Church was making a fortune from burial fees.
Into this pungent historical setting wafts Miller with a grave story about a man charged with emptying the cemetery and tearing down the church. It’s Ken Follett’s “Pillars of the Earth” in reverse. Miller’s hero, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, is a work of fiction, but the 1785 country Miller describes is redolent of real life. I’m reminded of “The Great Stink,” Clare Clark’s lurid novel about the creation of the London sewer system in the mid-19th century, but Miller is a more understated writer and, besides, such comparisons are odorous.
We first meet 28-year-old Jean-Baptiste in the labyrinthine mirrored halls of Versailles, where he receives an assignment that must be “handled with the necessary flair, the necessary discretion”: The crown has finally ordered that the cemetery be removed. For a young engineer from Normandy, this is a chance to make his name, but powerful forces — temporal and spiritual — are determined to resist him. People don’t like you fiddling with their bones or their cash cows. “It will require a man unafraid of a little unpleasantness,” the commissioner warns him. “The place is to be made sweet again. Use fire, use brimstone. Use whatever you need to get rid of it.” What exactly “it” is becomes the central problem of the novel.
Jean-Baptiste is an endearing fellow, serious and earnest, torn between his ambitions and his good nature. He’s so committed to rational self-improvement that every night in bed he recites a little godless affirmation about his devotion to reason. He prides himself “on possessing a trained and shadowless mind,” but just wait till the miasma of the graveyard begins to work on him. Not exactly a country bumpkin, he’s still dazzled by Paris. The early scenes of him stumbling around the city — trying to buy the right suit, trying to hold his liquor — are delightful.
He’s eager to begin dismantling the cemetery, but the author takes his time. The ghoulish engineering challenge can wait while Jean-Baptiste settles into the odd little collection of people who populate this story. That emphasis on character and place will determine who relishes this elegant novel and who finds its pace a little too sedate. But the scenes in the crowded market, the gated churchyard or the luxurious theater offer something close to time travel. And all of Jean-Baptiste’s a la mode friends are wonderfully drawn, from the doomed church’s organist “playing Bach to bats,” to kindly Dr. Guillotin, who’s studying the decomposition of bodies (his association with the National Razor is just a few tumultuous years away). There’s also a tasty bit of domestic comedy in the house where Jean-Baptiste rents a bedroom. He’s a parfait gentleman, but vapors from the churchyard have gotten to them all. The maid can’t resist him, and the nervous daughter doesn’t — protegez-vous!
Before the “delicate and gross” work of deconstruction gets underway in the “notorious boneyard,” Jean-Baptiste thinks it’ll be a matter of “so many men, so many hours. A calculation. An equation. Voila!” Very soon, though, he confronts problems that mathematics and physics can’t address. Authority over others is an awkward mantle for a young man devoted to utopian ideals. His workers strike him not as comrades but as “mysterious as eels.” And for all his fervor to welcome in the modern world, he begins to realize just what’s being thrown out along with those old bones. Not everything about the past is worth abandoning.
As his men begin digging and emptying graves more than 30 yards deep, the danger increases — from collapsing walls to poisonous gas. Even more troubling are the threats no one anticipates: shocks that redraw the plan and reorder one’s mind. Graffiti in the city foretells a violent disinterment on the horizon. The name les Innocents grows more and more ironic. How can anyone stay pure in such an atmosphere?
Miller is still relatively unknown in the United States (he’s not the Red Sox pitcher), but his work has been celebrated in Britain for the past 15 years. “Ingenious Pain” won the IMPAC Award in 1999; “Oxygen” was shortlisted for the Booker and the Whitbread; “Pure” was the Costa Book of the Year. I hope this handsome paperback edition from Europa helps increase his presence here. This smart reimagining of the groundwork just before France burst into flames is something to savor.