The central question of Andrew Miller’s novel Pure, set in Louis XVI’s pre-revolutionary France, mirrors that of the recent American presidential election—“yes on progress, but at what cost?” Miller’s answer is a well-crafted, sharply researched slice of literary entertainment, a book that is as distilled as the title suggests.
It is 1785, and a young engineer Jean-Baptiste Baratte has been assigned to oversee the exhumation of Les Innocents, Paris’s largest cemetery. Les Innocents is bursting at the seams and degrading the sanitation of the first arrondissement. The smells of the dead seep into air, food, and water, requiring residents to breathe through perfumed handkerchiefs. The pits of the mass graves are so overcrowded that excess bones are stored in charnel houses along the cemetery walls.
Baratte fancies himself a product of the Age of Reason. Progress shouldn’t be halted by the ghosts that cling to old bones, he thinks. The work will be difficult, require a full year of his life and the lives of many men, but modernity, as well as Baratte’s career, will advance. One of the first residents Baratte befriends is the cheerful church organist Armand, who accepts change with less doubt that even Baratte:
“Oh, my beautiful church,” wails Armand, smiling broadly.
“It will mean the organ too,” says Jean-Baptiste.
“You don’t object?”
“It is what I said to you before. The night we went painting. One does not resent the future or its agents.”
“And the future is good whatever it brings?”
“Yes,” says Armand, without a moment’s hesitation.
“I do not believe that,” says Jean-Baptiste.
“Think of the light,” says Armand.
“The church of Les Innocents has been hoarding shadows for five hundred years. You will free them. You will let in light and air. You will let in the sky. That is the future.”
It is only a matter of time, however, before Baratte realizes that the entire community surrounding the cemetery has built its livelihood on the steady influx of the dead, and many are not so accepting of the engineer’s assignment. Baratte rents a room from a family whose beautiful, but unstable daughter Ziguette opposes the exhumation and doesn’t take well to her parents’ attempts to pair her with the engineer. Nature itself doesn’t want to cooperate with the project. Rain and snow slow the dig and Baratte’s team of thirty boorish miners, including one of his old friends Lecoeur, build fires in the pits, living with the dead, drinking and whoring after sundown in a garden of the gods. Baratte begins to question his role in modernity’s forward march and is kept awake at night by a persistent animal scratching at his door that may or may not be imagined.
The difficult and symbolic task of emptying Les Innocents and moving its bones to the Catacombs of Montparnasse will change Baratte and the cemetery’s surrounding community forever. Those on sanity’s edge go mad. Many are lured in by the shadows, lost to tragic fates. Love surprises the engineer, like a lurking ghost. In the muddy delirium, among the bones, Baratte finds moments of hope in his grim work as the future’s shepherd.
Through all the next week the ground thaws, turns to mud, molasses. When a coffin is pulled out, a skull, the sound is amphibious, oddly sexual. Coats are unbuttoned, hats pushed back. Even at Les Innocents – and even to one whose sense of smell is as withered as the engineer’s – the air is altered and has, at unpredictable intervals, an unnerving purity to it that makes them all, men and women, miners and their masters, imagine themselves somewhere else, setting out perhaps on a long walk into the country, a stroll to some river fringed with willows.
Pure is so tightly focused on the narrative set piece of the cemetery’s emptying that I began to yearn for longer glimpses at the rest of Paris and the unrest brewing under Louis XVI’s reign. Miller misses opportunities to draw clearer parallels between our present and the French monarchy’s ineffectual rule, which exacerbated an economic crisis that ultimately led to the French Revolution.
Baratte’s quest never ceases to be compelling, however, and Miller relentlessly chips away at thematic questions of whether the past deserves to be bulldozed and whether the burden of history is ever fully lifted. Eighteenth-century Paris is conjured fully and convincingly with prose that is at once lush and precise. The dirty job of moving Les Innocents is a page-turning, visceral reading experience. But what makes Pure more than entertainment is that it asks so many questions that are very relevant today.
by Leland Cheuk