Thursday 19 July 2018

Dark secrets in the race to be pope

Fiction: Conclave, Robert Harris, Hutchinson, tpbk, 287 pages, €16.99

Thrills at the Vatican: Harris imbues his work with real psychological depth and insight. Photo: Geraint Lewis
Thrills at the Vatican: Harris imbues his work with real psychological depth and insight. Photo: Geraint Lewis
Conclave by Robert Harris
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

Robert Harris produces yet another gripping novel exploring the seductive lure of power.

Robert Harris, who's published his 11th novel Conclave, isn't just an exceptionally good thriller writer. He's an exceptionally good writer, full stop.

To categorise Harris's books as thrillers isn't inaccurate, as such; most have some element of the genre, to greater or lesser degrees. Conclave, as it happens, is probably the least thriller-ish that I've read.

And they are, literally, thrilling; they grip from first page to last, a rare skill in itself. (I'm still trying to work out how Harris managed to make An Officer and a Spy - the true story of the Dreyfus affair, where you already know what happened - so riveting, so full of twists and surprises.)

But they're more than just entertainment. Finely written and expertly paced, his fictional worlds assiduously constructed, Harris also imbues his work with real psychological depth and insight. He tackles the big themes too, most often the seductive lure of power (present here also).

Archangel, Fatherland, The Ghost and An Officer and a Spy are all superb novels; any one of them would be enough to validate an entire career. Conclave isn't quite up to that exceedingly high mark; it's sort of Harris Minor. But this is still a very fine novel, a worthy addition to the portfolio and pretty much a must-read for fans.

Conclave is set at some unspecified time in the near-future, I'd guess about five years from now. The Pope has just died. He remains unnamed throughout, but was relatively liberal: think Francis more than Benedict (though Harris stresses that his late Pontiff is a fictional character, not a portrait of the current incumbent).

Cardinal Jacopo Lomeli, as Dean of the College of Cardinals - the novel is filled with wonderful lengthy titles like this - is tasked with organising the eponymous conclave. One hundred and eighteen cardinals, from around the world, gather in the Vatican to elect a new pope.

Soon, the likely candidates become obvious. There's Tremblay, a brash, ambitious, liberal Canadian; Bellini, an intellectual Italian who really doesn't want the job; Adeyemi, a charismatic, very conservative Nigerian; Tedesco, an even more conservative Italian, minus any of the charisma.

Harris details the archaic procedures of a conclave, replete with lovely little details: how these men are sequestered in a building inside the Vatican, cut off from the outside world, then bussed from their lodgings to the Sistine, where the actual votes are cast; the chalice and urn used to store those votes; the string of red ribbon on which counted votes are collected.

The room, meanwhile, has three furnaces: one for burning ballot papers after each round, one for a chemical which emits black smoke, and a third, used at the end, for the famous white smoke which announces "Habemus Papam" - "We have a Pope".

As the story progresses, though, Lomeli begins to worry they'll never come to an agreement. Dark, damaging secrets from the past of at least two candidates are revealed. Discord is sown by the grim Tedesco. A series of Islamic terror attacks, within and beyond the Vatican, add more pressure.

There's also the mystery of Cardinal Benitez, a Philippine stationed in Baghdad, made cardinal by the late Pope in utmost secrecy. And, to his mounting horror, Lomeli finds he himself may yet be the next Holy Father…

Conclave has all the elements of great drama: power-plays, politicking, tension, errors, risk. So far, so West Wing or House of Cards. What raises the story above that is the setting.

Even us irredeemable atheists can appreciate the sheer pomp and ceremony at the heart of a Papal election, the 2,000 years of heritage and tradition, the global significance, the way they dress and talk, the ancient formulations, the wondrous buildings, the Italian, the Latin, the liturgy and theology and, at times, eschatology - the operatic grandeur of it all.

The whole thing is fairly absurd, sure, but there's a sort of magnificence in that absurdity. Conclave reads as though The Godfather has met Machiavelli to discuss a history of the Borgias, and is as thoroughly enjoyable as that sounds.

Darragh McManus's novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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