You know what it’s like… Unless it’s just me…
You see a book on a shelf, perhaps at a Service Station, maybe on the M5.
Something about the cover appeals; the blurb interests you; the historical context intrigues you…. And yet for some reason (let’s call them children and imagine the reasons were at the point hitting each other and screaming) you don’t get the chance to buy it.
For weeks you keep an eye out for the book, it doesn’t appear. Eventually, your Audible.com credits come up and you get the chance….
And it just never quite hits the mark.
I don’t think that narrator helped – Jonathan Aris in this case – as his voice was rather monotonous. But I just didn’t get the story! Well, I understood the story but I didn’t get the story. Get me?!
The story revolves around the cemetery at Les Innocents in Paris which, having been packed with corpse upon carcass upon carrion upon cadaver for decades is spilling into neighbouring houses and poisoning the air of Paris. In itself, this is a potentially wonderful image of the superating wound in the heart of pre-revolutionary France.
Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young Engineer is instructed to remove the cemetery. And herein lies my problem with the book. I didn’t like Jean-Baptiste; I didn’t care about him. Half way through the book, avoiding spoilers, a dramatic event befalls him. And I still didn’t care for him. He fell in love. I still didn’t care for him. he was plunged by events into the role of a hero. Cared? Still no. And I think that the “plunged by events” is the problem: he was so damned passive! Things happened to him. A classic example is when Jean-Baptiste meets the organist Armand who whirls him through Paris, cons him into buying a pistachio suit. He does not demur, does not decline, neither agrees not disagrees with anyone. Later, Armand whirls him again into becoming Beche, an unwitting activist for the Party of the Future.
There are good things here, don’t get me wrong. Jeanne the Sexton’s daughter was very sweet; the gang of miners who actually toiled to remove the bones were simultaneously very earthy (somehow with their pipes and whoring reminding me of Moby Dick‘s Stubb) and simultaneously somehow fey and otherworldly. Now that’s not a bad trick to pull off!