Saturday, January 14, 2012

Book Review : Pure by Andrew Miller (Sceptre 2011)

1785, and the French state is rotten, putrefying. Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young engineer, is summoned to a decaying Versailles to be given a task by a government minister, the clearance of the cemetery of les Innocents by Les Halles in Paris, which is full to overflowing and filling its surrounds with stench and disease. Apparently there is an elephant somewhere in Versailles.

The elephant is the impending French Revolution, whose presence looms over this book whilst only ever being acknowledged in the prophetic street graffiti of the mysterious Bêche. And, as wide-awake readers will note Jean-Baptiste is preparing the way for the upheaval, and that "Baratter" means to agitate vigorously, they will realise that we are in the realm of complex extended historical metaphor. However, don't let that put you off - this is page-turning book, cleverly written, engaging and entertaining, and one can enjoy immensely it without all the cleverness. But dig away at the surface like Baratter's men from Valenciennes, and so much more opens up...

The title announces the theme: purification - of the graveyard, of the district, of the state, of la pute autrichiènne with whom Baratte will live. A day is coming when the last trompette-stop of the organ will sound and the innocents shall rise up from their graves. Jean-Baptiste travels to Valenciennes via Amiens (incidentally home to relics of John the Baptist) to employ Flemish miners, working men, simple but loyal, to excavate the bones of les Innocents and transport them to the catacombs below Rue d'Enfer. Miller captures the sights and smells of this unpleasant task in brisk, tight elegant sentences whilst continuing to toy with us.

Salome-like, the naked daughter of Jean-Baptiste's hosts tries to sever his head. Fortunately he is rescued by all-seeing Marie before he has shed too much blood. Call on Dr Guillotin who has expertise in such cases. It can be possible to over-interpret. As fire rages all around them, Jean-Baptiste finds Flemish miner Block (=stone = pierre =Peter??), gives him a key and tells him to take his followers to the river.

As a novel, it is not without its flaws. Structurally it is unkempt, events occur for little apparent reason, Jean-Baptiste is the only character of interest.Yet as an entertainment, an exciting read, historically astute, well-written and playful, it excels. Since finishing it, I've found myself musing on the theme and the apocalyptic parallels it develops, which is worthy tribute. And the elephant? - it was lying dead in Versailles, rotting away.

No comments: