France, in the turbulent years before the revolution. At Versailles a minister in Louis XVI's government tells a young engineer that there is an elephant somewhere in the palace. A gift to Louis XV from the King of Siam, it lives on burgundy wine and must be kept hidden away for fear that the palace dogs, once terrified of the great beast, might now set upon it and kill it. From the portentousness with which the minister weighs his words, the engineer thinks that the animals might almost be "figures in a parable"
It is an audacious novelist who can so knowingly prefigure the symbolism at the heart of his own work without threatening the success of the entire enterprise. It is fortunate, then, that Miller is a writer of subtlety and skill. Pure, his sixth novel, goes on to tell the engineer's story. A young man of humble background, Jean-Baptiste Baratte is ordered to exhume the vast and ancient cemetery of Les Innocents in the poor Parisian quarter of Les Halles and demolish its church. No one knows how many bodies are buried there – it is claimed that during one outbreak of the plague the graveyard received 50,000 in less than a month – but it has recently begun to burst its banks, poisoning the city and spreading "moral disturbance". Baratte's hiring is inadvertent – he is at first mistaken for someone else – but it is to herald the beginning of a year "unlike any other he has lived".
Baratte finds that the stink of the dead dominates the quarter, fouling the air and tainting even the breath of those who live there. The vast smoke-blackened church that presides over the graveyard obliterates the light. And yet, as the engineer begins his grisly excavations, he finds that the residents of this poor and labyrinthine district have a powerful attachment to both. There are also those who support his work, among them a kindly doctor, Guillotin.
Miller's parable is unambiguous. As Baratte's story unfolds, the impending revolution hangs over the narrative like the blade of the guillotine to come. Jean-Baptiste Baratte, or John the Baptist the Churn, is in Paris to prepare the people for the coming of the true messiah. It is his duty to rip away the filth of the past, to lay the foundations for a new, better world. As his foreman declares: "They will name squares after us . . . the men who purified Paris." Everywhere there are auguries of the turmoil to come: an organist plays to an empty church, the local theatre stages Beaumarchais's revolutionary Marriage of Figaro, a cart rumbles round the quarter, its side emblazoned with the legend "M Hulot et Fils: Déménageurs à la Noblesse".
Meanwhile, the half-disinterred cemetery becomes a kind of hell, with huge fires kept burning day and night to clear the air. Bones are piled in heaps. The brutish miners brought in to clear the corpses collapse inexplicably in the deep pits. Prostitutes shriek in the shadows. There are acts of madness, unexplained violence. As the foreman of works observes bleakly: "I had some good in me once."
Unlike many parables, however, Pure is neither laboured nor leaden. Miller writes like a poet, with a deceptive simplicity – his sentences and images are intense distillations, conjuring the fleeting details of existence with clarity. He is also a very humane writer, whose philosophy is tempered always with an understanding of the flaws and failings of ordinary people. He does not deal in heroes. Baratte takes a determinedly scientific view of the world – his nightly catechism is not a prayer but an assertion of the "power of reason" – but in the end his science does not comfort him. He is an accidental protagonist, a man riddled with self-doubt who purchases a pistachio-green silk suit because it is modern but who never feels comfortable wearing it, who reads the latest books but ends up using their pages as toilet paper.
Pure defies the ordinary conventions of storytelling, slipping dream-like between lucidity and a kind of abstracted elusiveness. The characters are often opaque. The narrative lacks dramatic structure, unfolding in the present tense much as life does, without clear shape or climax. It is left to us, who know the world that came after, to impose upon Miller's tale the weight not only of the revolution that would tear France apart but also of the war-torn centuries since, the twinned history of progress and bloodshed. The result is a book that is unsettling and, ultimately, optimistic. Flowers bloom again in the disinterred cemetery. Sunlight illuminates the darkness through the broken roof of the church. Though progress brings suffering and death, the balance, as Baratte knows, "will still be in your favour". As Miller proves with this dazzling novel, it is not certainty we need but courage, now as much as ever, before we too are reduced to bones.
Article by Clare Clark.
Clare Clark's latest novel is Savage Lands (Vintage).