Paris, 1785. A year of bones, of grave dirt, relentless work. Of mummified corpses and chanting priests. A year of rape, suicide, sudden death. Of friendship too. Of desire. Of love…. A year unlike any other he has lived.
Jean Baptiste Baratte is a young provincial engineer trying to make a future for himself in Paris. He is given a task, to clear the cemetery of les Innocents, to remove the corpses piled up in the pits year after year, to demolish the church, to cleanse the foul air which is spreading throughout the neighborhood. It is not an easy or pleasant task but the young man sets to it and tries to do his job as best he can. He hires men to dig the pits, finds a new place for the old sexton and his young niece to live in, survives an attempt on his life which leaves him with horrendous migraines, and falls in love with Heloise, a young prostitute.
From the back cover blurb I thought this book would be a perfect fit for me. The promise of an adventure, of sinister discoveries, of mysteries unraveled, together with the beautiful cover design which reminded me of Poe, it looked like one very interesting book. But no, it wasn’t meant to be. Not quite, anyway.
It’s not the melancholy air of the story, or the beautiful rhythmic prose which I really loved, or the characters – no, dear story, it’s not you, it’s me. I wanted more – more, when there were whispered rumors about a beast living in the deep charnels of the cemetery, more when the men discover the bodies of two young women buried decades ago but still in near perfect condition, more when Jean Baptiste is attacked in the middle of the night and left to bleed to death in his room. These were tantalizing morsels spread throughout the book but unfortunately they were not given much room in the story.
Instead, we get a lot of details about the lives of the miners who leave their jobs in a provincial town to come and dig the graves of les Innocents – taciturn men under the rule of a mysterious leader with violet eyes (how intriguing, I thought, I wonder who that man is, but this is yet another unexplored thread). Their lives are ruled by their job and soon enough it’s beginning to get too oppressive. Drink is allowed, then tobacco, and then women, to enliven their dreary work of digging the bones. Ironically, it’s the things the church condemns that keeps the men at their jobs, as if erasing the place from the city requires letting go of rules and reverting back to a more instinctual state. The church is demolished and in the process a man dies, an accident. Then follow rape and suicide, unexpectedly.
Even though the people who live in the vicinity of the cemetery appear not to approve of its demise – the death of a cemetery, there’s a certain poetry to that – none but one dares to do something about it. What they do doesn’t change the plans regarding the cemetery but it profoundly alters Jean Baptiste.
It’s the end of an era, it’s a big change for the neighborhood, and some people have trouble letting go. Some lives begin and others end in the slowly disintegrating world of bones and foul miasmas. The cemetery is but the backdrop for all the dramas unfolding, a breeding ground for love and hope, despair and violence – the old priest is slowly losing his mind, for the sexton’s niece, Jeanne, is the end of her childhood, for Jean Baptiste is the beginning of a new life.
The stories are told in rich detail, the dialogues in particular – Jean Baptiste’s interview with the minister who hires him is one of my favorite scenes in the book. And yet, I wanted more, more mysteries and more answers. My dissatisfaction with the story is no doubt due to my penchant for ghost stories, for horror and suspense, for the deep dark pits of the human soul. So, dear story, we’ll part ways as friends. I do like you very much but I wish I could have loved you instead.
Some of my favorite passages:
about the Palace of Versailles:
The palace is full of mirrors. Living here, it must be impossible not to meet yourself a hundred times a day, every corridor a source of vanity and doubt.
Some of those who lived beside the cemetery had started to find the proximity an unpleasant one. Food would not keep. Candles were extinguished as if by the pinch of unseen fingers. People descending their stairs in the morning fell into a swoon. And there were moral disturbances, particularly among the young. Young men and women of hitherto blemishless existences…
For his part, Jean-Baptiste prefers not to think of bones as having owners, names. If he has to start treating them as former people, farriers, mothers, former engineers perhaps, how will he ever dare sink a spade into the earth and part for all eternity a foot from a leg, a head from its rightful neck?
For the time it takes to walk back to the house and up the stairs to his room, he imagines himself the happiest man in Paris. He does not light a candle – he sits on the bed in the cool almost-dark as thought wrapped in the purple heart of a flower.
How simple it all is! And what idiots we are for making such a trial of our lives! As if we wished to be unhappy, or feared that the fulfillment of out desires would explode us! Briefly – the old reflex – he wants to examine what he feels, to name its parts, to know what kind of machine it is, this new joy; then he lies back on the bed, laughing softly, and like that comes close to sleep before sitting suddenly bolt upright, everything uncertain again.
*My rating: 3.5/5 stars
*Read in June, 2014