With a bunch of fellow English students I’m visiting Paris for the first time, the year before the student riots. We briefly consider sleeping under a bridge, but then sensibly head for a youth hostel where my marginally superior French allows me to successfully negotiate for sheets, pillows and blankets. Our seasoned leader (in the sense that he’s been to Paris before) suggests we go for French onion soup at Les Halles early next morning. Very early. We stumble about the smells and sounds and bustle of Paris’ central wholesale market, aware that the French equivalent of London’s Smithfield has a limited life expectancy. It is eventually demolished in 1971.
I don’t revisit the area until 1998: the unloved replacement shopping forum is shunned for the prettier environs of the nearby church of Saint-Eustache with its outside sculpture of an outsize head and hand — this representation of a listening giant by Henri de Miller reminds me faintly of a dismembered corpse.
Smells and corpses dominate the area immediately south of Les Halles. The cemetery of Les Innocents is full to bursting — in fact bodies have already spilled into the basements of neighbouring houses. The foetid smell of decomposition penetrates and permeates everything — clothes, the air, food, breath. The King has decided the cemetery must go, to be replaced by a public open space. The church of the Holy Innocents, the ossuaries or charnel houses, monuments, everything substantial is to be demolished; the bones, the contents of the mass graves, are to be removed to a quarry across the Seine, a complex of underground galleries which will become known as the Paris Catacombs. The whole enterprise will take until 1788 to complete. One year before the Revolution.
Andrew Miller takes this true incident from pre-Revolutionary France and builds a marvellous fiction around it, a deserving winner of the 2011 Costa Book of the Year award. He imagines a year in the life of an engineer from Bellême in Normandy — from October 1785 to October 1786 — when the young Jean-Baptiste is tasked with the responsibility of organising the exhumations and the demolitions. We have a cast of memorable characters — organist and priest, a sexton and his daughter, a Parisian household with a mad daughter and a resourceful maid, a certain Doctor Guillotin, miners from Normandy, masons from the capital, a literate prostitute — with whom the young engineer interacts. There are months of unremitting hard work and tedium, shockingly violent incidents, tender moments and details that may or may not have significance in the grand scheme of things. All through the novel there is a sense of vividness, of immediacy, of verisimilitude, so that even when we know that much has been invented by Miller we believe that this is how it could have been.
The title is itself pure and simple. The purification of a putrefying Parisian district is what the novel is ostensibly about. But the story is anything but pure and simple. Death marches through the tale, from the threat of aggression to actual cessation of life, from mummified bodies to the bones in the charnel houses that line the cemetery, from the atmosphere of violent overthrow that permeates everything (much as the smell of Les Innocents permeates the whole of Paris itself), whether performances of The Marriage of Figaro, the graffiti on the walls of buildings and under the bridges of Paris or the corrupt places in the palace of Versailles. Everything is in transition, not least Jean-Baptiste’s dreams and well-being, but while there is the promise of life after violence (a birth, a renewal) first comes the blood-letting.
It’s hard not to wonder about all the details Miller puts into his narrative. How is the engineer’s given name related to the original John the Baptist, whose head suffered a severance from his body, and thus to the attack on Jean-Baptiste himself? Are we to imagine that the Holy Innocents massacred by Herod’s soldiers are not only symbolic of the thousands of bodies in the cemetery’s pits but also of the victims in the story? Is not everybody a victim of events beyond their control? One of the strengths of a really good novel, surely, is that the ideas it engenders continue to live long after the book is put down.
And any future visits to Paris will be, for me, forever coloured by the knowledge of what really happened here, once upon a time.