Sunday, 19 June 2011


Alluding, of course, to Goya's Caprichos plate no. 43, the cover of Andrew Miller's new novel Pure easily attracts one's attention. And the age of Enlightenment is the scene of the novel as well, and should intrigue those of us who have read Philippe Aries's writings on e.g. French cemeteries:

'Deep in the heart of Paris, its oldest cemetery is, by 1785, overflowing, tainting the very breath of those who live nearby. Into their midst comes Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young, provincial engineer charged by the king with demolishing it.

At first Baratte sees this as a chance to clear the burden of history, a fitting task for a modern man of reason. But before long, he begins to suspect that the destruction of the cemetery might be a prelude to his own.'

The reviewer in The Independent writes:

'Murder, rape, seduction and madness impel this elegant novel. Baratte undertakes his commission of removing the entire cemetery of Les Innocents, close to the markets at les Halles. Closed after human remains broke through a wall into the cellar of a neighbouring tenement, the cemetery and its ancient church is to be cleansed. Baratte is to oversee the excavation of the graves and charnel pits (some of which, at almost 20 metres deep, draw on the engineer's mining expertise) and the transport of bones to a defunct quarry outside the city.

Purifying centuries of decaying mortality and removing the miasma that permeates the dwellings, skin and even food of the area is neither simple nor necessarily popular. Miller threads into this fabric subtle ideas about modernity, glancing at Voltaire, public health and the seditious graffiti that anticipate the revolutionary fervour of 1789 - just four years away.

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