“At what point do you think they started to outnumber us?”
“Who, my lord?”
“I don’t know, my lord”
“Early, I think. Early” The minister finishes his macaroon.
Les Innocents, the biggest and oldest cemetery in Paris is to be removed. Jean-Baptiste Baratte, an idealistic, modern young engineer, trained by the famous Maitre Perronet no less, is given the job of clearing it out, moving the bones on and tearing down the church.
In front of the bench, a dozen sparrows have gathered, their feathers puffed against the cold. He watches them, their ragged hopping over the stones … In their feeding, the little birds appear to dance between his feet.
Baratte, hoping to become a modern man in Paris (and who doesn’t) visits the cemetery and falls in with the mischievous church organist Armand and the young innocent Jeannie, daughter of the Sexton.
Pure is a whirlwind, galloping along without so much as a glance at it’s periphery as Baratte brings his old friend Lecoeur and a band of men from the mines at Valenciennes to clear the mass grave pits and bring down the church, while he obtains his supplies from the fantastically named Louis Horatio Boyer-Duboisson.
The work does not go entirely smoothly thought, Baratte himself is a victim of a crime, which prompts him to declare himself to his love interest, the Austrian, Heloise, known in the area as a whore.
Miller evokes Paris beautifully, the bustle of the streets surrounding the cemetery and the local markets, the washer women and traders. And despite the gigantic presence of the dead, there is a rich vein of humour throughout the book, whether from the characters or Miller’s intriguing turn of phrase.
With Armand, the engineer spends an hour searching for Les Innocents most celebrated relic, the stylite’s toe bone in it’s box of iron, but there is no sign of it, and something, some pantomime quality in his friends searching, prompts Jean-Baptiste to ask him if he has in fact stolen it.
Armand agrees that he has, “It was to raise funds for the hospital” he says.
“Is that true?” Asks Jean-Baptiste
The enigmatic Lafosse, the miner with the violet eyes, even Armand or the real life Dr Guillotin could have had bigger plots in the novel if Miller had wished to flesh it out, but he distils it down to the narrative of the Baratte, and the end of Les Innocents. The characters are seen through the prism of the cemetery, as if it is the cemetery that gives them life.
When the cemetery is gone, so to are the miners, Lafosse, even the minister. Jean-Baptiste moves on with Heloise after a year unlike any other he has lived.