A truly engaging and delightful work of historical fiction. I didn’t read historical fiction in the past because I somehow had the idea that it was all Regency romances, but I am learning that anything set in an older time is historical fiction, so …. horizons widened.
This story is set in Paris a little before the Revolution. A young engineer has been sent to some functionary whose offices are in the Versailles Palace. He is given the job of excavating and demolishing an ancient cemetery in the heart of Paris, Cemetery of Les Innocents, and its resident church. The cemetery was apparently used during the plague for enormous mass graves of the plague victims, but over the centuries, its contents have started to leak into nearby houses and basements, and the air smells truly foul. It is so bad that the residents of the area can be identified by their breath, which smells of the carnal house.
Our engineer, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, is made to understand he does not really have a choice to accept the job, nor can he resign. He is told he is not high enough up on the food chain to have the privilege of resigning, so he sets himself to getting the job done. He goes to a friend working in a mine several days journey away, and arranges for 30 men to come for the job. Although the job is gruesome, the men are happy to change careers, since the pay is better, the hours are better, they get fed and given a drink allotment.
An old caretaker and his young granddaughter live on the grounds, as well as an ancient definitely batty priest, who appears and disappears. There have been no masses held in the decaying church for decades, and when Jean goes to examine the state of the building, he meets a fellow, dandily dressed, who is the organist for the church. He still gets paid his stipend, although there is no one to play for, and no one to work the bellows, so his playing is only the clicking of the keys. A couple of times a month, he pays some local lounge-abouts to work the bellows so he can hear the music he is playing. He and Jean become friends, and he becomes central to the story.
Those in charge of the operation have arranged for Jean to board in a nearby house, owned by an odd couple with a twenty-something year old unmarried daughter. The house has the smell of the cemetery, and the food has a strange taste.
The workers arrive, they set up camps in the cemetery and start digging, piling up bones into huge mountains, waiting for the go -ahead to transport them to a catacombs in the city which will be used as a sacred resting place.
Jean becomes obsessed with a prostitute he has seen who was selecting books at the booksellers. He was astounded that not only could she read, but that she read books. He continues to think about her and look for her, eventually meets with her and in a strange state of mind, invites her to move in with him. He sets up housekeeping with her in his boarding house.
The story progresses until a wonderful denouement, (See what I did there? Used a French word for finale or climax. I impress even me.) where life, death and all the in betweens come together in one conflagration. (Yeah, and that conflagration word was a hint, but I had to point it out because you wouldn’t know how clever I was unless you had read the book.)
The whole thing is a meditation on death, life, and the eternal verities. Here are some great quotes for you.
A gloom and doom priest preaches from Isaiah: Beware the Lord will empty the earth and turn it upside down and scatter its inhabitants. The earth dries up and withers, the whole world withers and grows sick, the earth’s high places sicken, and the earth itself is desecrated by the feet of those who live in it.
Damn! Isaiah had it going on, didn’t he? Sounds like our near future, what with climate change and all. OK, let’s move on to some other topic:
The poverty of the villages is almost picturesque from the windows of a coach that is not stopping. How much has changed in two hundred years? Did the people not live much like this in the days of Henri IV? They may have lived better, with fewer of them and the land less tired and the lords, with their just glimpsable chateaux, less numerous.
Arrrrggg! Now doesn’t that sound like today, too. The average folk living less and less well as the billionaire class increases, living off the money of the average folk. Whew. Well, let’s try something about the future:
One does not resent the future. Nor its agents.
However, one can very well be afraid of it. Moving on to families:
The visit, like all visits home for a long time now, has been an obscure failure. When is it we cease to be able to go back, truly go back? What secret door is it that closes?
And a last musing on violence:
Violence is respected; he has learnt that much about the world. It may even be one of those virtues the young man on the chair was preaching about. Gentlemen with blood up to their shoe buckles, bowing and making to each other un beau geste. Virtuous violence. The virtuous necessity of it. Violence as a duty. It is, very likely, the coming thing.
Beautifully written, great story, wonderful characters. Do read it.
The author, in an interview talking about his choice of subject matter, said, “After the age of fortysomething, death is a taste in your mouth, and never goes away again.” He may be right on that score. He got the idea for the story ten years before actually writing the book after reading a book about Les Innocents cemetery by French medievalist and historian, Philippe Ariès.