I am very happy indeed to be kick-starting my ‘Paris in July’ (hosted by the wonderful Bookbath and Thyme for Tea) with a book that, as I hammered home to Simon and Gav last week, I simply really enjoyed reading. No strings attached.
Pure follows the career of Jean-Baptiste Baratte; a country boy with ambition. An engineer whose main successes include the construction of an ornamental bridge over a lake in his home town in Normandy. Despite a humble background and unassuming demeanor, Jean-Baptiste likes to think of himself as a philosophical and forward-thinking kind of man, a man determined to see himself equal to the Minister’s nightmare task of destroying the poisonous cemetery of Les Innocents in the center of the city; where the fat of partially putrefied bodies, packed in too tightly with thousands of others to decompose properly, rises to the surface and the air sickens the bodies and minds of those unfortunate enough to live around it.
To assist him in this logistically impossible and deeply disturbing task Jean-Baptiste enlists the help of a former colleague and friend from the Normandy mines; Lecoeur, along with a small group of the unfaltering miners themselves, hoping that with their highly specialised experience and hardened hearts they may disinter the thousands of bodies at Les Innocents in as timely and respectful a way as possible.
The story Andrew Miller has created here is so entertaining. Drawing inspiration from the real disinterred bones that lie for all to see in catacombs under Montparnasse in modern day Paris, Miller has done what many fail to do (myself included) when stumbling across this macabre Parisian sideshow which is to consider not only the bones themselves but just who in the world became responsible for carrying out this grim task, the problems they encountered and how this huge project tied in with the tense pre-revolutionary politics simmering over every aspect of life at the time.
I am not familiar with this city. Andrew Miller’s Paris is one from dark fairy tales whose history has always enticed me; one of winding backstreets and open sewers, a far cry from Baron Haussmann’s spacious and regimental construction we all see today. Whilst being hauntingly vivid (you can almost smell the decay rising off the page) Miller’s prose is also beautifully spare and readable. He also manages, in a very literary way that stands completely apart from your traditionally ‘trashy’ historical fiction, to create a period setting, dialogue and characters without abandoning himself to ‘ye olde’ français; modern yet believable writing that reminded me of the likes of Michael Faber’s Crimson Petal and the White.
Pure is firmly focused on the French Revolution and, therefore, reality. Despite Jean-Baptiste’s normality and very human insecurities (insecurities that result in him pawning his simple clothes in favour of pea-green haute couture and a becoming a bystander to midnight revolutionary escapades) make him a sympathetic character; a mere mortal trying to stand firm against the monstrous task ahead, one which results in unimaginable and life-changing events for all involved. This novel is so symbolic it could almost become too obvious and hammed up for its own good; modern v traditional, pure v impure, light v dark, Jean-Baptiste or ‘Bêche’ (French for spade) as he is known, becomes a micro-symbol for the change that is happening on a grander scale (and that we readers know lies just a couple of years away.) Characters and themes are so sensitively drawn however that as readers we don’t end up feeling beaten into submission by allegory. This is real life, with all its tragedies and nuances, where even the addition of the notorious Dr Guillotin (namesake of the guillotine itself – how symbolic can you get?) onto the stage cannot distract from the story Miller is trying to tell; one of revolution and of the witnesses of that revolution who, in the end, were merely bones and dust like the rest of us….