1785, before the emptying of The Bastille, The Great Terror and La Guillotine will separate the heads of the aristocracy from their bodies Jean-Baptiste Baratte is given a simple task by a Minister to empty a cemetery, Les Innocents. It lies in the centre of Paris. The putrefying dead are causing such a stink it might even affect the health of the Sun King, Louis XIV at his palace in 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.’
Paris is evoked with a Zola-like attention to detail. The distance between the aristocracy and the workers for hire are shown by the miners hired and brought into to do the job.
‘At Valenciennes, the miners are not permitted to own their own tools. A man who has his own spade might thing himself independent.’
Jean-Baptiste Baratte looks in the mirror and sees himself not as his father a glover, but as his old uncle who lives on a scrap of land in Normandy, and speaks with the local dialect, incomprehensible outside its borders. The landlady’s daughter, the beautiful Ziguette, wonders if they will be able to understand their new lodger. But Barette also sees himself as a man on the move, an engineer, a man on the make, part of the new class of the future. The best tailor in Belleme cannot touch the worst tailor in Paris.
New clothes make the man, His new friend and guide, the church organist Armand-Saint Meard, helps him choose who he should be.
Bringing his old friend to Paris, La Coeur, as gaffer to the men from the mines of Vincennes brings with him a sense of utopia. They planned such a city together.
‘We are the men,’ says La Coeur, ‘who will purify Paris.’
Heloise, ‘The Austrian’, the tall woman in the red cloak. Ziguette ponders how she can hold her head up when she should cower in shame. She carries her past into the present.
Baratte’s story of supposedly upward mobility told from his point of view. But Ziguette and later Heloise also mirror Baratte’s narrative and for short passages the story switches to their viewpoint. Ziguette in the constant present, but Heloise is allowed to tell something of her backstory of parents who pimped her out for small change and convenience.
The larger story, of course, is of class. Jean-Jacques Rousseau might herald in free thought. But in uncovering the catacombs and death pits of les Innocents the poorest piled into nothing but deadly dust, Baratte also burrows into himself. The embourgeoisement thesis in a morality play. The centre cannot hold. Read on.