Conclave: Robert Harris's Credibility Goes Up in Holy Smoke
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Robert Harris's latest novel, Conclave, opens in the quiet dark of an October night, in a year unspecified but not too far in the future when four cardinals gather around the ornately carved bed of the Pope. The Holy Father, commander in chief of the Catholic Church and spiritual leader of one and a quarter billion souls, is dead.
Sede vacante... the throne of the Holy See is vacant.
Cardinal Jacopo Lomeli realises that, as Dean of the College of Cardinals, it falls to him the task of managing the Conclave by which the new Pope must, in all haste, be elected. All of the eligible cardinals, those under the cut-off age of eighty, must be summoned to Rome. They will surrender their laptops and mobile phones. They will be sequestered inside the Vatican, in the utilitarian hostel built by St. Pope John Paul II for this very purpose. They will be denied access to radio, television or newspapers and their shutters will be welded shut. They will be escorted daily from their accommodation to the Sistine Chapel where they will pray for guidance and cast their votes and they shall not be released until a new pope is elected by a two thirds majority.
Conclave. From the Latin, con clavis: “with a key”. Since the thirteenth century, this was how the Church had ensured its cardinals would come to a decision.
The ceremony and seclusion associated with the Conclave are fascinating and surely a great place to start a story. Robert Harris, just as surely, should be just the right man to tell it. A well-seasoned author of political intrigue, Harris’s greatest skill lies in choosing a stage where his imagination can reign uncontested by historical fact. In Fatherland, arguably Harris’ finest work, he created an alternate 1964 when a victorious Hitler prepared to celebrate his 75th birthday. The enormously popular Cicero Trilogy, Lustrum, Imperium and Dictator, is a fictional re-imagining of a biography by Cicero’s secretary. Tiro’s very real biography is lost to us thus liberating Harris to tweak the story from a lesson in Latin History into a political thriller. Harris underpins entertainment value with meticulous research making his books an ideal read for those of us who like to think we are learning something while we relax in our armchairs. For this type of book to work, the reader must be willing to suspend disbelief. The great trick for the author, of course, is to know just how far he can stretch credibility.
At the doors of the Casa Santa Maria, Cardinal Lomeli ticks off the names of his 117 fellow electors as they arrive, escorted by Swiss Guards in their plumed helmets and armed with halberds.
It might have been a scene from the sixteenth century, except for the noise of their wheeled suitcases, clattering on the cobbles.
He contemplates each of their chances of succeeding to the Papal throne.
Cardinal Bellini, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, arrives with a bag crammed with books. Known to be an intelligent and hard-working man of prayer with a pristine record, and an Italian to boot, he is the clear favourite. Bellini may well be the ideal candidate for the pontificate in so far as he is also the man who least desires it. Will Bellini choose to pass the chalice?
Cardinal Tremblay, out-going Camerlengo, saunters in with a casual Nike sports bag slung over his shoulder. He ‘managed somehow to combine a bland personality with passionate ambition.’ Could the informal Canadian be the unpretentious and accessible Pope for a modern age?
What about Cardinal Adeyami? The Nigerian arrives without a bag, being already at home in the Vatican, but with a bevy of supporters. There seems to be a fair chance that the sonorous baritone, a man who believes that ‘all homosexuals should be sent to prison in this world and hell in the next,’ could become the first black Pope.
All this was plot enough but Harris couldn’t resist a complication. Just as the doors on the Conclave are closing, a confession is made, a shocking secret revealed and a previously unheard-of cardinal is added to the list as number 118. The keys to the kingdom of heaven, it seems, are up for grabs.
Harris has succeeded in writing yet another page-turner about politics, public relations and campaign management. The pacing is superb. One secret ballot follows another as the candidates narrow down their fellows to a two cardinal race. Twists are heaped upon turns to the very last page but the ending, holy smoke, Harris made a hames of it.
Having started with a brilliant idea, a group of powerful, ambitious and supposedly holy men sequestered from the world to choose their leader, Harris threw it away by having a multi-purpose, comedic, Irish side-kick, Monsignor O’Malley, relay information from the outside world into the inner sanctum. He might have got away with that, O’Malley is a charming chap, had it not been for the frankly ridiculous finale. Alas, no, that fragile thread of credibility snapped and the whole story unravelled from the bottom up.
Listen, if you are going to be glued to a seat for a few hours, on a plane or a train for instance, then this book is just the ticket. You won’t feel the time passing and you’ll be happy to leave it behind you for the next victim.
Harris is a terrific writer but this is far from his best work.
Perhaps we should bear in mind the words of Alexander Pope: To err is human, to forgive divine.