Wine and unsuspected depths of loneliness have produced in him an effusiveness he would not, sober, trust or like in another. Nearly, very nearly, he tells Armand what he is in Paris to do, for surely Armand would be impressed, would see what he himself (in the ruby light of tavern wine) has come to see — that destroying the cemetery of les Innocents is to sweep away in fact, not in rhetoric, the poisonous influence of the past!
Andrew Miller’s Pure follows the work of engineer Jean-Baptiste Baratte, tasked in 1785 by one of the French king’s ministers, with cleaning out the overflowing and corrupted site of the Parisian cemetery les Innocents. It is a true story but also, of course, as Miller’s author’s note says, “a work of the imagination–in other words, it is historical fiction, its plot steeped in research then rendered as human drama.
Like Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, Pure has rich in details that make its scenes–many of them grimly horrible, as you might expect from a novel about digging up an old cemetery–exceptionally clear and immersive. A sample, from the digging of the first of many pits from which the remains are removed and then carted away to what we now know as the Catacombs:
They dig for three hours before Jean-Baptiste asks Lecoeur to call the first break. There has not, in these first hours, been much to see. The dead appear to have been reduced to shards, fragments, as if the pit had churned them like dry bread in an old man’s mouth. Are they digging in the right place? Was the sexton mistaken? He and Jeanne have gone back to the house, but after the break, the pit starts to give up its treasures and every second thrust of the spade levers out some recognisable structure. A jaw with a row of teeth that look as if they might still have a bite to them. All the delicate apparatus of a foot, ribs like the staves of an old barrel. The bone mound becomes a low bone wall. There is no wood, not a splinter, nothing to suggest the men and women who went into the pit had anything more than the shelter of their own winding sheets.
Over time the finds vary: the miners Jean-Baptiste has imported to do the excavation find well-preserved coffins (“inside is a skeleton, the residue of a man, his bones connected by patches of leathery sinew”); a school’s worth of children, laid head to toe; two young women, astonishingly preserved by “a form of mummification” (“skin, hair, lips, fingernails, eyelashes“). These last are of particular interest to the doctors consulting on the dig, using its finds for their own experiments. One is Dr Guillotin, not yet famous for his advocacy of the swift and relatively painless means of execution that came to bear his name. His presence is one of many reminders that this literal purification process is taking place on the cusp of a different kind of transformation, a purging of the past to make way for an as-yet unimagined future.
I liked a lot about Pure: Jean-Baptiste’s struggle to come to terms with the work he has been given and, in a more existential way, with his own identity; the tactility and pacing of Miller’s prose; the constant lurking sense of imminent danger. I felt a bit at sea, though, in terms of how the various pieces of the novel were meant to add up. When violence breaks out, which it does a few times, quite horribly, it felt random to me: unmotivated, unpatterned, like plot twists rather than clear manifestations of (for instance) the social and political impurities for which the stench of the cemetery seems to stand as a metaphor. The revolution is coming, but the signs of it are scattered, or perhaps a better term (consistent with all the digging!) would be subterranean, present but never quite seen or really accounted for. Quite a lot of things happen, but somehow the novel didn’t seem to have much plot, just events.
Maybe that’s what Miller wanted: to evoke a scene (which he does pretty brilliantly) and a moment, without attaching it to a larger narrative, whether personal or political. But it frustrated me that so many of the novel’s elements felt seeded with meaning that then didn’t bear fruit. I wanted something from the novel that it didn’t give me, some momentum or culmination. That is about my expectations as much as Miller’s accomplishment, I suppose. Still, when the church they are demolishing breaks open to let the light in and Jean-Baptiste observes, “How filthy everything below now appears! How much the place had depended on its darkness!” it seemed to me that the moment was crying out to be read symbolically in a way that the novel more generally didn’t support. Miller writes wonderfully, though, and if you want a really vivid sense of what it would look, feel, and especially smell like to dig up thousands of old corpses, though, you won’t be disappointed!