Take yourself to the catacombs beneath the French capital with Andrew Miller’s Pure
If your idea of Paris is of beauty and fashion, delightful meals and romantic walks along the Seine, then I’m afraid you are in for something different with Andrew Miller’s novel Pure.
It is the 18th century, and the oldest cemetery in Paris is overflowing.
The Holy Innocents’ cemetery may have started out as your average church burial ground, but now it is a nightmare, with hundreds of thousands of bodies having been piled on top of each other for generations. And despite the bones being removed to be put in ‘charniers’, there is still insufficient room for the endless supply of new corpses. The nearby residents have had enough and are complaining that their water is being poisoned by the rotting flesh and the stench has become unbearable, so the authorities decide something has to be done. The bodies must be removed. And this is where our novel begins.
Charniers at the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery in Paris – Image via Wikimedia Commons
A young engineer named Jean-Baptiste is hired by the authorities to remove the corpses, an immensely difficult feat requiring all his skills. But there’s an added challenge beyond the engineering concerns; our young hero has been told he must do the job in secret.
What follows as poor old Jean-Baptiste tries to deal with this grizzly nightmare is fabulous. I relished this book – and if you are someone who enjoyed the novel Perfume, or The Shadow of the Wind, then I think you’ll love this one as well. There are some terrific characters, especially from within the nearby family that Jean-Baptiste lodges with, as well as amongst those who befriend him and try to help him with the project. And fortunately there’s also a little romance for our earnest young engineer.
Of course you have to be up for being a bit grossed out from time to time – there’s no protecting of your sensibilities here. This is a cemetery after all….
From cemetery to city square
But what if you were visiting Paris today and you wanted to see the cemetery for yourself? Well, I have to tell you, there’s not much sign of it these days. It seems Jean-Baptiste did his job very well.
The cemetery is now a small square surrounded by restaurants and fast food outlets, BUT in the middle of the square you can see this fountain.
It is called the Fountain of the Innocents, and it is the oldest monumental fountain in Paris, built around 1550. It was once placed against our cemetery wall – which you can see in this engraving.
Engraving of the Fountain of the Innocents – Image courtesy of Siefkin DR via Wikimedia Commons
When the cemetery closed down, the site was turned into a market square and the fountain was earmarked for destruction. Fortunately, after some community pressure, it was decided to move the fountain into the square, raise it up on a stone pedestal and have a fourth facade constructed so it could be free-standing.
Painting of Fountain of the Innocents 1822. Image courtesy of Musée Carnavalet via Wikimedia Commons
In 1858 it was moved once again to its present location in the middle of the square, where you can visit it today. You will find it, right in the heart of Paris, near to the shopping precinct of Les Hall and the Pompidou cultural complex.
But what happened to all of those bones?
After sitting by the fountain for a while, perhaps with a coffee, reading your copy of Pure you can take a 45 minute walk or a 20 minute ride on public transport to the place where all those bones got moved to; the spectacular, and slightly scary, Paris Catacombs.
Paris Catacombs. Image courtesy of albany_tim via Wikimedia Commons
A labyrinth of tunnels underneath the heart of Paris, the catacombs house the bones of six million Parisians. And the first bones to go in there were the very bones Jean-Baptiste spent hundreds of pages trying to dig up in this novel.
Engraving of the Paris Catacombs from 1855 – Image courtesy of Brown University via Wikimedia Commons
The Catacombes are not for the faint-hearted – and nor is this novel really – but they are truly one of the most memorable tourist attractions you will visit in Paris.
And to really appreciate them, I’d certainly give Pure a read before you go!