The general background of “Pure” is true: The Church of the Saints Innocents was founded in the Middle Ages and eventually became the largest cemetery in Paris. You think you have storage problems? One early-15th-century plague added 50,000 bodies in a few weeks. Giant pits held more than 1,000 bodies apiece until the ground was so packed that older corpses were dug up and stored to make room for new ones. Nearby buildings collapsed under the pressure. (Purell! Purell!) By the mid-18th century, the atmosphere grew toxic: Merchants complained that their wine quickly turned to vinegar and their meat rotted, pedestrians fainted and sickened. But the Mother Church was making a fortune from burial fees.
Into this pungent historical setting wafts Miller with a grave story about a man charged with emptying the cemetery and tearing down the church. It’s Ken Follett’s “Pillars of the Earth” in reverse. Miller’s hero, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, is a work of fiction, but the 1785 country Miller describes is redolent of real life. I’m reminded of “The Great Stink,” Clare Clark’s lurid novel about the creation of the London sewer system in the mid-19th century, but Miller is a more understated writer and, besides, such comparisons are odorous. We first meet 28-year-old Jean-Baptiste in the labyrinthine mirrored halls of Versailles, where he receives an assignment that must be “handled with the necessary flair, the necessary discretion”: The crown has finally ordered that the cemetery be removed. For a young engineer from Normandy, this is a chance to make his name, but powerful forces, temporal and spiritual, are determined to resist him. People don’t like you fiddling with their bones or their cash cows. “It will require a man unafraid of a little unpleasantness,” the commissioner warns him. “The place is to be made sweet again. Use fire, use brimstone. Use whatever you need to get rid of it.” What exactly “it” is becomes the central problem of the novel.
Jean-Baptiste is an endearing fellow, serious and earnest, torn between his ambitions and his good nature. He’s so committed to rational self-improvement that every night in bed he recites a little godless affirmation about his devotion to reason. He prides himself “on possessing a trained and shadowless mind,” but just wait till the miasma of the graveyard begins to work on him. Not exactly a country bumpkin, he’s still dazzled by Paris.
Until tomorrow: Unable are the loved to die, for love is immortality.