Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Did you know there was a cemetery in the heart of Paris - it was the oldest and largest - so overcrowded that there wasn't enough earth left to allow bodies to decompose properly? I didn't, until I picked up Pure by Andrew Miller.
The cemetery, Saints Innocents or Les Innocents as it's called in the book, is no longer there: in its place is a fountain Fontaine des Innocents on the Rue St Denis in the Les Halles district. The bones are now in Paris's Catacombs.
From the Middle Ages until the late 18th century, the ground and its charnel houses had swallowed up almost two million people, many buried in mass graves, until it could take no more. The cemetery and surrounding area were so unsanitary, even by mid-1700s standards, and the already intolerable situation made signicantly worse by a prolonged period of heavy rain, that Louis XVI ordered it destroyed. Every body and every bone was to be dug up and moved. The cemetery and church was to be no more.
Pure is a fictionalised version of this event told from the viewpoint of the young engineer, with no more experience than having built a small bridge in Normandy, who was given the task.
I haven't finished it yet, but so far it's the best type of book: a literary page turner. Andrew Miller is beautiful writer, and he's just won a major prize in the UK for the book. If I'm still enthralled by the end, I'll be straight on to the library to reserve everything he's ever written.
The Husband, who read it first, also loved it and he'd normally resist anything that could even be vaguely labelled as historical fiction with a barge pole. But he was desperate for a book and I was in the middle of something else. Now he keeps asking me what Jean-Baptiste is up to every time he sees my nose in the book.
Last night we looked up the exact location of Saints Innocents, now the Place Joachim-du-Bellay, on Google Maps and found the site was literally around the corner from the apartment we stayed in when in Paris the year before last. If only we'd known then, but Paris has so many secrets and stories.
Not far from the Pompidou Centre, which I never got around to either. Clearly, I need to go back.