Is there a genre called Atmospheric Historic? If so, Pure, by Andrew Miller must be near the top. Set in an overflowing Parisian necropolis in 1785 this novel is so packed with creepy images and smells and sounds you need to hold your nose as you submerge.
This is the story of Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young engineer given a government contract during an impersonal meeting at Versailles. He is tasked with clearing out the cemetery and church of Les Innocents, which is so ancient and in such bad repair it taints the air in Les Halles. A subterranean wall has collapsed and the stinking effluent of centuries of rotten things is leaking onto the streets, a metaphor if ever there was. They will clear the city of the stench of the past and pave the way for a grand new future. Jean-Baptiste takes a room adjoining the cemetery, where the breath of his hosts carry the smell of the dead.
He brings in an old friend from the mines and his team of workers and they discover vast plague pits into which they send their men, climbing ladders down among the dead, hoisting bones into slings that are piled onto carts that priests take away at night across the city to a new hole. The are watched over anxiously by the locals – from this distance they feel like the supporting cast: the sexton and his agreeable granddaughter, the jaunty church organist, his squeeze and his graffiti-drawing friends, Jean-Baptiste’s host family and their disturbed daughter, a crazy priest and a local whore who miraculously changes into J-B’s sophisticated and constant partner after our man falls in love with her at first sight (hmmm, that old cliché).
Jean-Baptiste takes a blow to the head but cannot afford to stop working. He struggles to find his words. I love the words that cause him problems: “Of the lost words some, like pigeons back to their loft, return to him. He writes them down, pen and black ink in the back of his journal: Razor Hoop Ruler Box-crib Hat . . .” How very Age of Enlightenment. “He wonders how much of a man’s life is the story he tells himself about himself. He wonders how much of his story he has lost. Wonders if it matters.” I wonder this, too, the bit about being the sum of the story we tell ourselves. There’s truth in that.
There’s a doctor called M. Guillotin. He’s kindly. It’s not explicit whether five years later this is the man who invents the useful blade-on-the-frame. Probably. The story is packed with all sorts of symbolism. A clean cut from the past, etc…
There are two acts of unexplained violence in the story. That may be the point, that people are unpredictable and shit happens, but these feel like loose ends to me. And the end is pure, glorious stagecraft. Almost as if Miller had the movie mind when writing it.
A movie would be brilliant.