Cemetery of lost ideals and flowering hope

Book review: Pure

Pure by Andrew Miller

Pure by Andrew Miller | Published by Sceptre, 2011

Youthful idealism is chastened by suffering and guilt in this humane and elegant novel.

Whom did Andrew Miller offend? The Booker prize may be subject to the literary fads and rivalries that invite parody, but it is truly surprising that Pure didn’t make the judges’ list for 2011. It is, after all, a finely crafted, enjoyable novel that can simultaneously capture both an eyelash and a city in its lens. Miller handles large themes, but brings them down to the level of the individual. As an added delight, Pure is set in a fascinating time of seismic social and political change that tempts us to reassess our own.

So, the story: It is 1785. Our protagonist, Jean-Baptiste, is ambitious, yet compassionate and decent. He is a young man from the country, unsure of himself in the great and dirty city of Paris. Jean-Baptiste aspires to being a modern man who uses rationality to solve society’s problems, but lacks self-confidence and authority. He struggles with how he might advance his career while being true to his ideals and finding personal happiness.

As an engineer with an aristocratic patron, Jean-Baptiste is summoned to Versailles to see one of the king’s ministers. The minister gives him a seemingly impossible task as well as the added burden of keeping it a secret. The Parisian cemetery of les Innocents can swallow no more bodies. It has already consumed so many that it has begun to spew remains into the cellar of a neighbouring house. It belches gases into the local area at such a rate that food in the market of les Halles turns bad. “You may, perhaps,” the minister says, “imagine the disquiet felt by those who lived above that cellar, by their neighbours, their neighbours’ neighbours, by all those who, on going to their beds at night, must lie down with the thought of the cemetery pressing like the esurient sea against the walls of their homes.” To rid Paris of an ungodly stench, Jean-Baptiste must excavate the overflowing burial grounds, cart the bodies away and level the church.

This puts Jean-Baptiste in a dangerous position. If he doesn’t complete the task, he will incur the wrath of the king. If he succeeds, he may be torn apart by the local people and their priest. To dig up their loved ones, take them away and tear down the church is surely an act of sacrilege. To bring in foreign workers, to rob the local priest and sexton of their homes, adds insult to injury.

There are other threats. Jean-Baptiste’s labourers, disgusted by the dangerous and unsettling work, may rise up and kill him before the locals do. To maintain discretion and discipline, the workers are locked into the cemetery at all times. They are exposed not only to the bald facts of death, but to the pestilential gasses of an over-crowded burial ground. In unearthing the dead, they may stir up religious violence or spark a plague. Local fury could become widespread rioting.

There is nothing nostalgic or glamorous in Andrew Miller’s evocation of eighteenth-century France. It feels wonderfully real, as do the characters. Although there are sub-plots about Jean-Baptiste’s relationships and the rumble of political discontent, most of the novel is dedicated to the grim and arduous task of clearing the putrid cemetery. There are, however, flashes of tenderness and humour, such as this:

“Monsieur Monnard looks perplexed. He pulls, ruminatively, at the lobes of his ears as though he were milking a pair of tiny udders.”

and this:

“In their room, the brothers lie speaking into the darkness above them, exchanging stories of their father. It is a ritual between them, a thing they must always do, the dead man’s life and character in a dozen worn anecdotes picked from a shared hoard, like that time in the middle of the market he told old Tissot what he thought of him, and the night he dragged the pedlar half drowned from the river and carried him home over his shoulder, and how, at his workbench, with his needles and grommets and waxed thread, he looked like a bull making a daisy chain …”

Many readers will be grateful for Andrew Miller’s restraint. A less skilled novelist might have applied a heavy hand to a novel about France on the brink of revolution, might have indulged in a blood-bath. As I read, I admired the deft touch of the writer, but somehow Pure didn’t quite reach the crescendo and catharsis I expected. Jean-Baptiste has alienated the local people, his workers and one of his oldest friends, but the crimes and tragedies that take place seem small in scale once the threat of mob violence is introduced, more so when the story is taking place shortly before the French Revolution. I found myself, wanting, somewhat perversely, some of the mayhem that erupts in a novel such as Perfume or The Dress Lodger.

What this novel does so effectively is show the development of the protagonist and the small acts of betrayal and loyalty, kindness and malice, courage and cowardice that shape the lives of the central characters. By the end of Pure, Jean-Baptiste is no longer the same man.

To read Pure is to spend time in the company of a humane and thoughtful person who can see the large forces shaping society but also cares about its individuals and wants them to find contentment. With the exception of the labourers, who remain a mostly mute and sullen presence, the characters are nuanced. They are flawed yet mostly well-intentioned. Some of them find redemption not through grand ideas but through intimacy and mutual support. The protagonist goes through a harrowing ordeal, but the story is suffused with hope. As the novel closes, we reluctantly say farewell to tender young Jean-Baptiste, and his benevolent creator.

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