Thursday, June 23, 2011
Book Review - Pure by Andrew Miller
Pure, Andrew Miller’s sixth novel, takes place in 1785, in Paris, as Normandy engineer Jean-Baptiste Baratte is summoned to the Palace of Versailles. There, Baratte, who is a graduate of the Ecole Royale des Ponts et Chaussées, is commissioned by the State to demolish the ancient cemetery beneath the church of “Les Innocents” in central Paris, and dispose of the thousands of bodies buried there.
The cemetery is far too close to the famous markets of Les Halles. The many bodies, whose fat refuses to decompose “properly” and saturates the ground instead, are causing the entire area to smell horribly. Even the food is being affected. “Les Innocents” – both the church and the cemetery – are now closed after human remains broke through a wall into the cellar of a neighboring tenement. Baratte will oversee the year long moving of the graves and charnel pits as well as the transportation of the remains to a quarry outside of Paris, an act that is supposed to “cleanse” or “purify” the church and the surrounding land.
Baratte, of course, can’t do all of this alone, so he calls on a friend, Lecoeur, who brings a group of sturdy and stoic Belgian miners to help get the job done. As the project gets underway, Baratte is both sickened and humiliated, but he’s accepted an advance from the State, and he’s also a forward looking man of reason, not of emotion or superstition. He tells himself he is only sweeping away the “poisonous influence of the past” and that he and his team will be “the men who will purify Paris!”
Although Baratte tries to console himself with thoughts of the good he’s doing, his task seems destined to failure from the very beginning, a failure that’s symbolized in the part of France that Baratte calls home. Baratte and Lecoeur have invented what they consider to be an ideal society and have named it Valenciana, derived not from Valencia, Spain, but from Valenciennes, France, the terrible, and terribly dirty, coal mining town in Normandy from which Baratte and Lecoeur both hail.
One would think the Parisian residents in the immediate vicinity of “Les Innocents” would welcome the purification Baratte and his miners are undertaking, however, surprisingly, some of them oppose it, among them the family – the Monnards – with whom Baratte lodges. Ziguette, the unmarried daughter of the house, is so incensed that she attacks Baratte in the middle of the night with a hammer.
Ziguette isn’t the only local with whom Baratte forms a difficult relationship during his year of digging and purification. Besides the somber Monnards and their beautiful but strange daughter, and Lecoeur, of course, there’s Jeanne, the sexton’s fourteen-year-old granddaughter, a sensitive and gentle girl who’s lived her entire life to date among the dead. By helping Baratte identify the graves, Jeanne tells him she is forced “to assist in the destruction of her little paradise.” There’s the mad priest of “Les Innocents,” Père Colbert, the stylish organist, Armand, who takes Baratte in hand and shows him how to dress in the latest fashion. And of course there’s Dr. Guillotin, the levelheaded and very humane man who becomes a part of the demolition and purification for research purposes only, and whose name will forever be linked to a terrible invention used in the coming revolution.
Héloise, however, is the person Baratte grows closest to. She’s the “hooker with a heart of gold,” who manages to retain an air of mystery and who isn’t at all stereotypical despite the way I described her.
All of the above characters and more bring Baratte’s story to life, and all of them are needed by Miller. In this story, everyone has a necessary part to play that can’t be played by anyone else.
Pure is a book filled with action. There’s murder, suicide (and you’ll never guess which character), madness, fire, and sex with a mummified corpse. And why not? Digging up the graves of children who’ve died of plague or young women preserved by embalming day after weary day is enough to drive even the strongest man witless. And the book is, of course, deeply political, though if you don’t like politics, you probably won’t even notice because Pure is, first and foremost, a wonderful, and wonderfully told, story. Still, how could Pure not be political? This is a book that centers on a repressive past that’s making way for the enlightenment of the future. Like most things consigned to the past, however, “Les Innocents” doesn’t give way easily or without a fight. Change is, more often than not, a very painful process.
The mood of Pure is, of course, bleak. And despite all the action in the book, the story often feels ponderous and claustrophobic, but ponderous and claustrophobic in a very good way. The characters may be vivid and colorful, but the atmosphere of Pure is heavy with anticipation and dread. At times, it’s downright creepy. I could see the fog off the Seine shrouding the graves of “Les Innocents” and hear the rain dripping down through the leaves on the stones. We know that a dark cloud is hanging over France, and Miller has succeeded is conveying this dark cloud in his novel. With every page the reader turns, he or she feels that something terrible, something really horrible, is waiting just around the corner.
The writing is flawless, and for me, it was vintage Andrew Miller, reminiscent of his glorious debut novel, Ingenious Pain, also set in the eighteenth century, an age Miller seems especially adept at calling forth in all it’s filth and forward thinking. In Pure, for example, as Baratte waits in the anteroom in Versailles, a small dog fouls the floor, causing Baratte to ponder “the way even a dog's piss is subject to unalterable physical laws.” While Pure is filled with the stench of the Paris streets, threaded through the book is an air of modernity. There are nods to both Voltaire and the importance of public health.
Miller’s descriptive powers have never been better. He writes of eyes as “two black nails hammered into a skull,” and coffins opened “like oysters” and my favorite, “the liquorice shimmer of a human eye.”
This is prose that shimmers and soars. It’s a book one could read for the prose alone, but Miller is far too good a writer not to unsettle us as well. In Pure, he gives us much to think about while we’re marveling at his way with words, thoughts that will linger long after we’ve read the book’s final page.
As Baratte tackles the technical difficulties of his commission, he begins to wonder how to live his own life with purity, and how best to achieve the happiness he so desires. Fittingly, it’s a dog that shows him the way, just as it’s a dog that introduces him to the filth of Paris near the book’s beginning.
I thought this book was flawless. Miller is such an extraordinary writer that I expected much from him, but not this much. Pure is one of those books you only come across three or four times in a lifetime. It’s vivid, it’s elegant, it’s earthy, it’s depressing, it’s vibrant. I can’t say enough good things about the book or Miller, himself. For me, Pure is definitely a work of art (and the cover, a retelling of Goya’s etching titled “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” is both gorgeous and perfect). The only other book I’ve read as brilliant as Pure is Hilary Mantel’s glorious Wolf Hall.
Miller’s novel Oxygen was shortlisted for the Booker in 2001. I expect Pure to at least be shortlisted. If there’s any fairness in life, it should capture the win.
If you’re looking for a highly literary novel that’s as perfect as a book can be, you can’t go wrong with Pure. And if you haven’t yet read Miller’s debut novel, Ingenious Pain, now’s the time to do so. Both books are brilliance distilled in its purest form, guaranteed to please even the most discriminating of readers.
Recommended: Definitely, and especially for those who enjoy highly literary novels. This is a beautiful book that’s beautifully written. I can’t praise it highly enough.