jueves, 9 de enero de 2014

Pure by Andrew Miller

Pure by Andrew Miller promises rich, illuminating and even exciting experience, intrigue mixed with history, science blended with romance. Set in the year 1785, the novel inhabits pre-revolutionary Paris, focusing on a small area near rue Saint Denis, where there is a church. In the church there is a neglected organ, which cries out to be played. And, also nearby, there is a graveyard, Les Innocents, a much inhabited though disused and derelict plot, if inhabited might be the word to describe the subterranean tower blocks of coffins.

Word has come down from the King - a king who, as we know, will himself be coming down in the near future - that the area is up for re-development. No, this is not a modern tale of fractured communities, corruption and greedy developers, but an eighteenth century examination of fear, religion and, in some ways, the supernatural. It is a cemetery that is to be dug out, its contents reassembled and then moved, and there are beliefs associated with that age, or perhaps any age, that might be aroused.

Jean-Baptiste Baratte, an out of town engineer with only a small amount of work to his credit, is chosen to carry out the task. He moves to Paris and finds rooms near his project, rooms cheek by jowl with the varieties of life one expects to find in a city jammed with humanity. There’s a strange girl called Ziguette on hand. She is clearly going to play her part in the plot. But whether that part will be in relation to the engineer’s work or play is initially unclear.

Of course there is no shortage of service industry or local free enterprise in eighteenth century Paris. And so there is no shortage of sensuous encounters, wine, food, grime, laundry and other related activity that humans might pursue while they claim to be alive. An occasional famous name calls by, and other characters wander in and out of the tale. The dead, of course, are always around.

But there is also a political dimension, and larger historical possibilities, because this is pre-revolutionary France, where an Austrian harlot plies her expensive and highly visible trade at public expense. And there is also a philosophical dimension, since this purports to be the dawning of an age of reason, where Voltaire satirises those ideas that foster the kind of fears that the digging out of a cemetery might generate.

If these are the themes, then it is the job of the engineer Baratte to assemble them, along with his team of labourers, to achieve an end. And that is where Andrew Miller’s Pure rather fails to deliver. The elements are all there - the sensuality, philosophy, politics, history, intrigue and, not least, the sense of time and place. But none of these aspects rises above the incidental. Neither the literary atmosphere nor the immediate narrative strands seem to come alive. The political and philosophical angles are around, and crying out to be developed, but they appear in hints and asides, without any involvement. Pure becomes a perfectly satisfying read, a sometimes vivid novel that takes the reader to a particular place and time. But strangely it never really seems to come alive and, when surprising events emerge, it feels like they have been concocted to prevent further drift. Pure is a book that could easily disappoint, for it promises much. Though there are aspects, particularly the political and philosophical angles, that are not fully realised, perhaps not even attempted, it remains a worthwhile and satisfying read. And in the end it reminds us, as a city of the dead is cleared out, that in the very near future French society was to embark upon some clearing out of a different kind. 

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