What is it about Paris and literary graveyards? Montparnasse Cemetery has Charles Baudelaire, Samuel Beckett, Guy de Maupassant and Jean-Paul Sartre. Père Lachaise is home to Honoré de Balzac, Molière, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein and Oscar Wilde. The Panthéon hosts Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Rousseau, Volaire and Émile Zola.
Pure by Andrew Miller is about Paris’ oldest cemetery: les Innocents. In 1785 the church was destroyed and the bodies were removed and taken to the catacombs. Miller merges historical fact with fiction, as he follows the life and work of Jean-Baptiste Baratte, the engineer employed with this task.
The atmosphere of this book is incredible: The cemetery was overcrowded, tainting the air, the streets, the houses of the quarter. Cellar walls collapsed under the strain put on them by mass graves. The church was closed several years after the graves became unbearable. Morbid, yes, but also fascinating. It was an intensely sensory novel – I really got a sense of a cold sweet decaying smell, and the oppressiveness of the church looming over the houses.
I wasn’t as interested in the life of Jean-Baptiste, although the novel did have some good characters. Instead, I found myself stuck into the description of specifically how they emptied the graveyard and moved the bodies. I loved the description of the priests following the bones through the streets, with candles and prayer. It isn’t really a gory book, although in parts disturbing, but the event really caught my interest. After all, it was the end of burials in central Paris that led to the creation of such iconic (literary) Parisian cemeteries.