By Chet Yarbrough
The word pure is defined as something which has foreign elements removed. “Pure” is a novel by Andrew Miller set in 1785. The year is relevant because it takes place in France, four years before the revolution.
The author does not refer to revolution but there is a macabre prescience and parallel to France’s 1789 rebellion. Social deterioration depicted in “Pure” reminds one of the horrors reported in the aftermath of the French revolution.
“Pure” is about dismantling a grave yard in Paris. Les Innocents’ grave yard was disgorged of cadavers and abandoned in 1786. Miller writes about an engineer, commissioned by the French royal court, to relocate burial remains and dismantle a church from an overburdened cemetery. The engineer reluctantly accepts the commission and moves from a small town to Les Innocents in Paris.
Miller’s engineer is commissioned to purify Les Innocents just as the French revolution is designed to purify France. The Les
Innocents’ commission is to remove area degradation caused by too many graves. The French Revolution’s commission is to remove degradation caused by too many aristocrats. The consequence in both instances turns into something more than purification. Human beings become savage and irrational; life becomes driven by repressed anger rather than normative morality.
Upon arrival in Les Innocents, the engineer smells the fetid air of decaying corpses. The smell permeates clothing, housing, and the psyche of local residents. Residents are accustomed to the smell. Some believe it is the smell of history and society; they love it. Others think it is only the smell of death and a reliable employer; so they tolerate it.
The engineer is from a mining town. He calls on a former friend to offer work as foreman for the grim job. The friend is to hire a team of miners to demolish a church and remove bodies from an adjacent graveyard.
Because they are miners, they are accustomed to digging and are willing to pursue less dangerous work above ground. The team arrives at the cemetery and begins work.
Soon after beginning work; digging through dirt and stacks of bodies, the miners, the foreman, and the engineer begin to have behavioral problems. All seek escape from their grim duties by soliciting local prostitutes. The foreman rapes a 14-year-old girl and shoots himself.
The engineer closets himself from society. He rents a room in a local family’s home. The landlord’s daughter attacks the engineer. She bashes a groove in the engineer’s skull.
The Landlord’s daughter is obsessed with the cemetery’s history. She focuses her terror of loss on the engineer because he is destroying her interest in life, her obsession with the cemetery. The engineer nearly loses his life. He suffers from memory loss, severe headaches, and bad dreams.
The Landlord’s daughter is exiled from the family home. The engineer chooses a prostitute to live with him in the daughter’s former bedroom. The landlord is demeaned by the arrangement but allows it because of guilt over his daughter’s actions. The engineer’s arbitrary commands remind one of stories of unjust treatment of the poor and middle class by revolutionaries that were supposed to rid France of arbitrary decrees from Aristocratic masters.
Les Innocents is to be abandoned because it became a dumping ground for human remains. France needed a revolution because cities had become dumping grounds for the poor.
There were justifiable reasons for closing Les Innocents but the nature of the work became dehumanizing. The same may be said of the French revolution.
Miller infers abandoning normative morality makes savages of us all. Life is not only about why or what human beings do. It is also about how it is done. For the health of residents in the area of Les Innocents, the cemetery had to be moved. For the poor of 1789, France’s government had to change.
The story of “why” and “what” seem clear in the novel, “Pure”, but the “how” is in question. When one knows the “why” of life and the “what” of action, the ends do not always justify means.