Set in 18th-century Paris on the eve of the revolution, Pure is the fictional tale of the destruction of les Innocents cemetery and its church (structures which really existed and were destroyed). The main character is the engineer hired to oversee the project, Jean-Baptiste Baratte. He is an idealistic young man, a fan of Voltaire who once conceived of a utopia called Valenciana, where “… economics and industry were threaded together to the benefit and improvement of all. The king’s minister Lafosse has hired Baratte to remove the bodies and purify the environment that has poisoned the air, water and food in the surrounding neighborhood. Lafosse tells Baratte, “It is poisoning the city. Left long enough, it may poison not just local shopkeepers but the king himself. The king and his ministers.” As Jean-Baptiste works to purify les Innocents, greater transformations are occurring around him and also within him. The question might be whether anything is really purified in the end and whether the means of purification aren’t themselves quite polluted in some way.
Baratte finds himself surrounded by a large and colorful group of characters once he moves to Paris. His landlords, the Monnards, have a beautiful daughter who is deeply troubled by the destruction of the cemetery. The church organist Armand becomes a friend who supports the destruction even though it means the end of his livelihood. LeCoeur, his old friend from their days together at the mines at Valenciennes and co-creator of “Valenciana,” is recruited to help with the project and provide laborers from the mines. There is a strange and reclusive priest (who reminded me just a bit of Mrs. Rochester in Jane Eyre); Dr. Guillotin, who is interested in the disinterred bodies; and several women whose interactions with Baratte change their lives completely — Jeanne, the sexton’s granddaughter, Marie the maid, and the prostitute Heloise.
Baratte starts his project with great enthusiasm and idealism. In his mind, “…destroying the cemetery of les Innocents is to sweep away in fact, not in rhetoric, the poisonous influence of the past.” But as the project proceeds over the course of the year, a number of problems develop that corrupt Baratte’s enthusiasm. The work in the cemetery pits is filthy, depressing and dangerous. The excavations seem to have a deleterious effect on both the miners and residents of the neighborhood, and Baratte himself is physically harmed as a result of the work. Moreover, this is a time when political and mob violence are on the rise and incendiary slogans appear on the streets. Eventually, Baratte’s reflections change from utopian dreams of the future to musings on violence and its inevitability.
This is a fine piece of historical fiction. It begins and ends at Versailles, showing in subtle and not-so-subtle ways the changes occurring in France and the rising tide of revolution. The story of Baratte himself is compelling as well, showing youth’s loss of innocence and idealism in the face of an increasingly unfair and violent reality.