A year of bones, of grave-dirt, relentless work. Of mummified corpses and chanting priests. A year of rape, suicide, sudden death. Of friendship too, of desire. Of love…
A year unlike any other he has lived.
The corpses of Les Innocents cemetery in Paris is filled to its brim. The graveyard was centuries old, and the weight of the bones, the mass burials due to plague, with the dead stacked metres deep, rising above street level, had left the neighbourhood with bad air and repugnant odour. A skeleton army breached the cemetery wall, cascading into a neighbouring building, and the pungency led to fear of airborne disease. It was time to take action. The area needs to be renewed and Jean-Baptiste Barratte, a young engineer, was summoned by the Minister to oversee the demolishment and transfer of the cemetery, and also the church.
Barratte hailed from Normandy and came to Paris and get to know a motley crew of people who lives around the cemetery. Barratte lives with the Monnards with their daughter Emilie (also named Ziguette) and maid Mary. Barratte befriended the church organist, Armand, who share a lascivious space with his landlady Lisa Saget. There is the cemetery caretaker, the old man and his granddaughter Jeanne. Héloïse the Austrian prostitute that Barratte has taken a fancy on and finally Lecoeur, his good friend whom Barratte befriended at the Normandy mine and was asked to put together 30-odd strong men to do the work at the cemetery.
Soon, as the blurb suggested, tragedies ensued, someone died, someone’s head was split opened, someone was raped, a few more suicide and death. I was expecting supernatural occurrences, evil spirits, ghosts, ghouls, scares and frightening sounds etc. I was pleased to say the book didn’t fall under the trap of supernatural genre, instead it was the subtle psychological shifts of the narrator, Barratte and of those who have came to work on the cemetery that renders the book a dark reflection of how the milieu may influence the change of the characters’ mood. There are the ones who have grown so attached to the cemetery that taking it away is like taking a piece of their life and childhood away from them. There are ones who are happy to see it go, for then, the spirits or things that strive in the dark now has the chance to see the light. Then there is Barratte’s leadership in test to reward and punish (not Barratte but indirectly) the ex-miner workers to keep the work on schedule and also the management of funds for the work, and a little bit more to spend on a new suit for Barratte to keep up with his new identity as an upper-class.
Due to the extra day on the leap year, I managed to squeeze in this last book for February. I see this as a old versus new kind of social dilemma which increases as I grew older. When I was younger I love all things new and sparkly but as I grew older, I cherish the historical and the antiques a lot more. Miller uses the story of his hero, Jean-Baptiste Barratte, a young engineer from the provinces commissioned to oversee the destruction of a church and its cemetery, as a way to dramatise one of the great questions of the Enlightenment: what is the status of the past? Is it something to be cherished and held on to, or should it simply be swept away? My answer to this is, even if it is a cemetery, I felt it should be left alone. I remember in October 2010, I visited Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof (Central cemetery) to see the world’s classical masters’ tombs and it was one of the most surreal and beautiful experience I have ever had.
Ehrengraber gruppe 32A is the Musician quarters. Closewise: the musician quarters with Beethoven on the left, Brahms on the right, Mozart memorial in the middle. 2nd row from L to R: Mozart memorial, with Beethoven’s in the background. Mozart’s body was never found as he is buried at the pauper graveyard. Next, the Strauss family, and the last one, Johann Strauss’ tomb.
The story is written in a clear, subtle way. I welcomed a refreshing escape to the pre-revolutionary days of Paris, but I was lost in the cemetery catacombs and a loss sense of purpose as the story plodded along. I keep expecting something more exciting to happen but when it actually happened, it wasn’t the drama that I have expected. Perhaps it is the way Miller writes. Perhaps because the subject matter is so morbid that my mood has been subdued. Perhaps the characters are just so lugubrious.
The book ruffled feathers and won the Costa award 2011 on the 26 January 2012 this year against the consensus of the stronger contender that was Matthew Hollis’s sort-of biography of Edward Thomas . It is said: “The judges seem to have opted for safety over boldness: Pure is a book that it’s extremely hard to dislike.” I recommend the book as an escape from the contemporary to an exotic (nevertheless morbid) milieu of 1785 Paris and nothing more but I do find the description of the process of excavating corpses and bones, fascinating.
Paperback. Publisher: Sceptre 2011; Length: 342 pages; Setting: Paris 1785. Source: Aisling’s copy. Finished reading at: 29th February 2012.
Jackie@Farmlane books: This is a fantastic piece of historical fiction, perfectly capturing the destruction of the cemetery. The descriptions were so vivid that I could picture exactly what life was like and the characters were so well drawn that it was impossible not to develop an attachment to them.
The only problem was that the plot was quite simple. A few events occurred along the way, but the book basically took 300 pages to describe the way in which the cemetery was removed. I enjoyed being transported to 18th century France, but the book’s limited scope means that I am unlikely to recommend it to anyone. Instead I advise you to try Ingenious Pain and after reading that I’m sure you’ll want to read all his other books anyway! – Jo’s comment: Yes indeed I would!
About the writer:
Andrew Miller (born in Bristol on 29 April 1960) is an English novelist. Miller grew up in the West Country and has lived in Spain, Japan, Ireland and France.
After gaining a first class degree in English at Middlesex Polytechnic, Miller studied Creative Writing at the University of East Angliain 1991. In 1995 he wrote a PhD in Critical and Creative Writing at Lancaster University. For his first book Ingenious Pain he received three awards, the James Tait Black Memorial Award for Fiction, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award; and the Grinzane Cavour prize inItaly. The book has been translated into 36 languages. He currently lives in Witham Friary in Somerset.
Miller first read about the clearing of the cemetery (in the area known as Les Halles) – the transport of skeletons to the catacomb tunnels beneath Paris – 10 years ago, in a book by French historian Philippe Ariès, called The Hour of Our Death. The Ariès book, a study of western funerary customs, made only brief mention of the graveyard’s destruction, “but I was taken by the theatricality”, says Miller. “It was done mostly at night, with fires burning to purify the air, and this terrible job was going on right in the middle of this very populous quarter ofParis. And then, of course, the bones were taken across the city in these processions, with chanting priests, to a quarry on the other side of the river. So that appealed to me as being interesting, visually interesting, but it was when it all happened that made it stand out. It’s the 1780s, a few years before the French revolution, and it seemed to me there was some attempt here to erase the past, erase history.”