Pure genius: If you want to understand Davos, start in 1785

Jan 26, 2012
Michael Bywater

What a story of priests and corpses, of glamour and decay, can tell us about the world we live in now

DO YOU understand Davos? Or the figures, the indexes, the forecasts which seem to change from one day to the next? Can you understand what George Soros was saying? Can you understand how he got so rich or, having got so rich, why that means we should listen to him? Can anyone explain what Angela Merkel is thinking, or even, just as a start, what she's actually saying?

And what about the rest of it? Who understands the Strange Case of Redknapp's Bung? Why is the HS2 London to Birmingham line a good idea? Is Boris Johnson mad? Why have Heidi Klum and Seal split up? Who is Seal, and why is he called that?

Modern times are drowned in information and largely incomprehensible. The only index of any real use is the Eh? Scale, invented just now by me, which measures the degree to which the average person is mystified by just about everything, on a scale of 1 (utterly ignorant bliss) to 10 (well-informed but complete incomprehension). Currently I'd say we're about 9.9.

But that's no good if you're a novelist. You need to get to grips. You need more detail. If you want to write about our times on a Dickensian scale, where on earth would you start?

The corpse-crammed, reeking churchyard of Les Innocents at Les Halles, Paris, in 1785, for example, would not be an obvious place to begin shedding light on the early 21st century.

But that's where Andrew Miller set his latest book, Pure, and if you read it, you'll see he's got a point. An extremely good point. Not just because his story is utterly compelling. Not just because it's just won the Costa Book of the Year Prize. But because when you reach the end of this story of priests and corpses, of glamour and decay, of civil engineering and civic discord, you'll find you have a slightly different view of the world of here-and-now.

And that, surely, is the point of a novel.

The story Pure tells is, in its bones, simple. The churchyard of Les Innocents is vilely overcrowded. Thousands of corpses decay in the shallowest of cursory graves, exhaling their rot so that the houses, the clothes, even the breath of those who live in the vicinity carry the sweet putridity of decay.

Jean-Baptiste Barratte, a young, ambitious, provincial civil engineer, is sent by the King to clear the churchyard of its weight of dead. Behind high walls and closed doors, we see labour, love, death, silence, fire, darkness. Strange hooded clerics chant at the head of midnight processions of piled corpse-wagons.

And beyond that, the stirrings of the revolution to come.

But this isn't just a window onto another, older, imagined world. You find your mind, while utterly engrossed in the story, simultaneously wandering off to the here-and-now. It's finding parallels, whether consciously or not. A world weighed down by the decay of its dead. A society burning at the unjust government of rich philistines, at the clearing away of the values of its history, along with the rot.

A sense in the air that something decisive is going to happen, and happen soon. And, of course, the necessity to suck up to the ancien régime in order to survive, while at the same time longing for their destruction.

While you're reading the novel these things flicker in the background; Miller is a compelling enough writer to hold you firmly in his imagined there-and-then.

But it's one of those novels that leave a powerful after-image. Finish the book, go back into everyday life to find yourself looking about you, sniffing suspiciously, wondering what that nasty taste in your mouth is.

Pure is perhaps about how attempts from within to tinker with (and arrest) decay can come too little, too late. Sometimes revolution seems inevitable: a proposition which perhaps resonates with more of us today than would care publicly to admit it.

There's a clue in the Christian name of the hero, Jean-Baptiste: "John the Baptist", the harbinger who was sent to "make straight the way".

And the lesson is that making the way straight is never as predictable as it seems, whether you're a banker, a politician, or an 18th century engineer.

‘Pure' by Andrew Miller, Sceptre. ISBN 978-1444724288

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