Literature / Pure
is a 2011 Historical Fiction
novel by British author Andrew Miller. It is set in Paris in 1786 and while the events to come
are never mentioned, they hang over it, as reviewer Clare Clark puts it, 'like the blade of the guillotine'.
The story is that of Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young and inexperienced engineer who considers himself a thoroughly modern man and rationalist par excellence
, to the extent that he has replaced his evening prayers with a recitation of his name, occupation and belief in 'the power of pure reason'. He is commissioned to excavate a cemetery in the centre of Paris which has been so overstuffed with corpses that it is beginning to poison the surrounding area and move the remains to a quarry outside the city. Baratte views it as a noble undertaking, an opportunity to sweep away the decaying, destructive influence of the past; many of the residents, however, particularly the daughter of his landlord, are quite attached to the cemetery and opposed to its removal. For workers Baratte looks to his own past, hiring thirty men from the mines where he started his career, under the command of his then best friend Lecœur. He also makes some new acquaintances at the cemetery, including the alcoholic organist Armand and the sexton's granddaughter Jeanne, and falls in love with a local prostitute, Héloïse.
The novel deals with themes of history, the past, and progress, as well as death, science and the rationalistic worldviews that were becoming so influential in this period. It met with universal acclaim, receiving excellent reviews and the Costa Book Award for both 'Best Novel' and 'Book of the Year'.
Tropes found in the book include:
- The Alcoholic: Armand.
- Bookworm: Héloïse, whose genuine, unpretentious interest in reading and knowledge for its own sake is heavily contrasted with Baratte's half-hearted attempts to read Buffon's Histoire naturelle while dressing up in a scholarly robe because it's the kind of thing that scholarly, enlightened modern men do.
- Closer to Earth: Armand's mistress, Lisa, who is far more sensible than him and just about everyone else in the novel.
- Due to the Dead: Attempts to respect the remains of those buried in the cemetery are made, with varying degrees of effort and success, and are tied very neatly into Miller's discussion of religion vs. science.
- Foreshadowing: The book is absolutely packed with hints of what is to come and veiled discussion of the social and political context which led to it. Particularly blatant is the story of the elephant at Versailles which Baratte is told at the beginning of the novel, and the advert he sees for "M Hulot et Fils: Déménageurs à la Noblesse" ('movers of the nobility').
- Meaningful Name: Jean-Baptiste, who is sweeping away the past and making the way clear for...something.
- Romanticism Versus Enlightenment: While the novel is set before the Romantic period, its central conflict between a rational, scientific, future-oriented outlook and a nostalgic, religious one fits the trope fairly neatly.