'What is hidden'
Attempting to cure myself of my recently developed historical fiction aversion I decided to cheat slightly. Andrew Miller may have chosen to set some of his novels in the eighteenth century but I think most people would call him a literary novelist before calling him a historical one. The fact that this novel had recently won the overall Costa Book Prize (has any literary award ever sounded so cheap thanks to its corporate sponsor?) also meant that it met the stringent criteria of being a 'well-written, enjoyable book that [the judges] would strongly recommend anyone to read.' Snarking aside, I knew it was high time to read this author and I can say that after finishing this book and 'enjoying' it I will be keen to read what many regard as his best book: Ingenious Pain.
Pure is set in the pre-revolutionary Paris of 1785, a city where discontent is whispered rather than shouted from the rooftops. Into the city comes a young, 'but not very young' engineer by the name of Jean-Baptiste Baratte. Summoned to the court of Versailles he has been charged with the onerous task of clearing the centuries old cemetery of Les Innocents in the district of Les Halles and destroy the church that adjoins it. The cemetery and its environs are choked with the smell of decay, something that seems to pervade the very breath of those that live around it. The symbolism is clear. The past needs to be cleared away for Paris to make a fresh start; you can't destroy history and even burying it only lasts so long before it contaminates the present. Hundreds of years of dead bodies must be removed and interred elsewhere, the ground made fresh again for new seeds to take root.
The novel actually contains a fair few characters but they are all easy to keep hold of. Baratte stays in the house of the Monnards near the cemetery under the watchful eye of their maid Marie (thanks to a small hole in the floor of the room above his where she sleeps). Their daughter Ziguette is a haunting presence, keen to impress upon their guest that to dig up the cemetery is to dig up her own childhood. Each night he prepares himself for sleep with a repeated mantra designed to help him keep his focus.
'Who are you? I am Jean-Baptiste Baratte. Where are you from? From Bellême in Normandy. What are you? An engineer, trained at the Ecole des Ponts. What do you believe in? In the power of reason...'
To aid in his labours Baratte calls upon the services of an old friend, Lecour, with whom he used to work at the mines of Valenciennes. He brings Lecour and a gang of Flemish labourers to the city and they bring with them their own ideas of progress and the future, ideas fashioned by years of back-breaking and life-threatening labour. Both he and Lecour used to be idealists, once even made plans for a utopian city and it is soon clear that Lecour has lost none of his original passion.
'...tonight, everything is as it was. Mind speaking to mind, heart speaking to heart. The fountain of youth in our breasts . . . bubbling! You know what distinguishes one man from the next? His willingness to remain unspotted while the other, out of a kind of idleness, lets his mouth fill up with soil. Grave-dirt.'
In the church by the cemetery the organist Armand still occasionally opens the stops but is also another advocate of 'the party of the future' ('It has no meeting place, no subscriptions, and yet it exists as surely as you or I. The party of the future. The party of the past. There may not be much time left to decide what side you are on.') and along with a group of fellow conspirators he dubs Baratte with a new name, Bêche (French for spade). And finally (for you, for now: there are even more characters than this) a pair of doctors are detailed to document the bodies being lifted from the ground, one of them a certain Dr Guillotin.
There's a fair bit of plot too. Revolutionary slogans appear on the walls of the cemetery, the name of Bêche now a weapon of change; Baratte is attacked and almost killed in his bed; an act of violence in the cemetery threatens to be the catalyst to undo the entire project. So there's a lot going on but rather than feeling like a historical novel burdened with detail it actually reads more like a thriller. Those of a literary bent will find most satisfaction in the figure of Baratte himself rather than the plot and characters that surround him. The way in which he wrestles with his ideas of reason and progress, his battles with desire, loneliness and responsibility; the oppression that he feels from the authority figures around him and even 'his own weakness and confusion.' There is always something that clouds his thinking, makes it hard for him to reach any clear conclusions; the stench of the cemetery, the head injury after he is attacked and the 'word blindness' that afflicts him afterwards.
Miller is also a writer who knows how to use contrast in his writing to great effect. This novel contains moments of violence and great tenderness, death and new life, friendship and enmity, terror and beauty. In much the same way that a forest fire can destroy but also bring new life, fire always threatens to be the agent of purification as well as providing one of the novel's more beautiful images as it sweeps across blades of grass 'each tip a delicate flower blooming only for a second or two.' Moments of beauty are few and far between however in this novel of decay and destruction. No matter how noble the aims, the desire to make things pure is always combined with a ruthless disregard for anything that stands in its way.