Harris, Robert: Conclave

HEADLINE: great entertainment and a page-turner……but not to be taken seriously.

SPOILER ALERT: Reader beware! If you read further, key elements of the plot will be revealed.

Someone rash enough to be walking the chilly streets of Edinburgh late on a dark January evening might have been surprised to see white smoke suddenly emerging from a chimney. What could it be? Surely not some sort of imitation papal conclave?

Perhaps venturing nearer, the sounds of uproarious conversation and laughter would make this seem less likely, and peering through a chink of the curtains at the huddle of decidedly un-Cardinal-like figures and the litter of bottles the walker would turn and go on his or her way, with the mystery unsolved.

But they would have been closer to the truth than they realised. For it was the Monthly Book Group in full swing, and they had just reached a consensus, recorded above, on “Conclave”, the 2016 novel by Robert Harris. This takes as its apparently unpromising theme of the election of a new Pope.

Coming from a modest background, Harris read English at Cambridge, and rose to become President of the Union and editor of “Varsity”. He then joined the BBC to work on current affairs, moving at 30 to become political editor of the Observer. This background in English, current affairs and journalism may help to explain his development into a very gifted writer, particularly of historical novels. He has an outstanding ability for gripping story-telling combined with an ability to absorb research and produce books at great speed.

Everyone enjoyed the book and found it a real page-turner. But everyone had reservations of various kinds, and was disappointed when they compared the book with “An Officer and a Spy” (discussed October 2014).

One reader suggested that Harris was less good when freewheeling in pure fiction, and much better when constrained to follow historical fact as in his novels about Cicero or Dreyfus. As is common in the creative process, constraint can paradoxically liberate the imagination.

We were impressed by the volume of research into the arcane Conclave processes that Harris had carried out, and the access he had gained in the Vatican and elsewhere to help him do this. However, many – though not all – felt that the book was slowed down by the need he seemed to feel to incorporate so much research. We also wondered if C.P. Snow’s “The Masters”, about the election of a new master at a Cambridge College, had been an influence on Harris.

All the action happened within a Conclave shut off from the world, creating a similar enclosed feel to an Agatha Christie detective novel, so often set in a remote country house, or to a play with only one set. Indeed, rather like a detective novel, it had a formulaic feel, as the reader was sucked into the plot by wondering which candidate would win the Papacy as each vote unfolded, and as there was a succession of twists as front-runner after front-runner was unseated by an unsavoury revelation.

Many of the main characters, essentially the papal candidates coming from different continents, were pretty one-dimensional, and not far from burlesque or caricature. They were portrayed with fairly gentle satire.

Part of the fun is that many of the candidates are absolutely desperate to become Pope. They pursue that objective by using the dark arts of politicians, and, in one case, the type of bribery more commonly associated with FIFA. Our discussion coincided with the newspaper report of a psychological study that showed that those rising to the top of large organisations tended to have psychopathic (distinctly unchristian!) character traits.

But at the same time we are allowed inside the mind of Cardinal Lomeli, the Pope’s Dean and chief administrator who is running the Conclave. We observe much of the action through Lomeli’s stream of consciousness.

Lomeli is a well-drawn character, suffering from a crisis of faith yet still religious, determined to do the right thing, without personal ambition, and believing that God may want him to play a role in finding the right Pope. There is a fine passage in which Lomeli goes past the painting of the Last Judgement feeling like one of the damned himself – this is the sort of thing that lifts Harris above run of the mill thriller writers. And Lomeli is also allowed a line in ironic wit:

Once God explained all mysteries. Now He has been usurped by conspiracy theorists. They are the heretics of the age...”

who had the advantage of seeming to be American without the disadvantage of actually being one…

In the United Kingdom – that godless isle of apostasy, where the whole affair was being treated as a horse race – the Ladbrokes betting agency made Cardinal Adeyemi the new favourite…

an excess of simplicity, after all, was just another form of ostentation, and pride in one’s humility a sin...”

The Book Group comprises a wide range of attitudes to religion – from practising Christians to those who view religion as a system of control that delivers riches and power for those at the top.

The practising Christians noted that there little of substance about the role of prayer in such a Conclave. Admittedly Lomeli had the religious consciousness and often resorted to prayer, but the content of his prayers was not shown. They were fairly confident Harris was an atheist, despite the subtle portrait of Lomeli.

A Catholic made the telling point that most recent Popes had been reluctant to take up the office, a world away from the author’s assumption that Cardinals behaved like Westminster politicians. Despite these disappointments they, like the rest, found the book a great page-turner of a political thriller. However, the book was really about politics, not religion.

On the other side,  “The Vatican Map Room” thundered one of our atheists, “is more like a War Room than a Map Room”.

There followed an interesting, if not illuminating, debate about the religious beliefs of Harris. Most but not all thought him an atheist, who went to considerable efforts to disguise this through creating the internal life of Lomeli, and was anxious not to offend the Church too much.

In the end, we resorted to the sacrilegious device of Google to scrutinise his beliefs, and found this comment he made in an interview with the Catholic Herald “I don’t think this book could have been written by a complete atheist”. So…not an atheist……..or rather not a complete atheist……or…… good at political replies?

The Catholic Herald gives Harris a good review: “More than an intelligent thriller: it reveals the dilemmas we all face…. Its author clearly has engaged with the Church.” By contrast the Irish Times finds “only black smoke blowing through the literary chimney.

The final “twist” of the book – a word usually used for detective stories – comes when the well-deserved winner of the contest is suggested to be genetically female, but inter-sexual.  This was too much for us. This was not so much gentle satire as farce. Harris had already gently chided the church for its sexism by his portrayal of the undervalued nuns, but here was a crashing of the gears and a full frontal attack.

Our experts were soon on the case, however, with our medical adviser judging that it was indeed possible that the true gender of the new Pope had been missed in [her] upbringing in the Philippines.

And our historical adviser pointed out that this plot element was not as strange as it seemed, given that, at least according to protestant mythology, Pope Ioannes Anglicus (855-857) was a woman disguised as a man (“Pope Joan”). For many centuries thereafter a pierced chair (“sedia stercoraria”) was used to check that a newly elected Pope was indeed male prior to confirming his appointment.

Suitably aghast we wandered around some of the details of the book – such as being pleasantly surprised about the lack of smart phones being brought into the Conclave (although later research shows that the Pope does have a Facebook page!) – before returning to agree a conclusion.

The white smoke was made ready as we agreed that this was a great entertainment and page-turner, but not a great book. On closer examination not so much an inter-sexual Pope as an inter-genre novel emerged, with elements of political thriller, serious stream of consciousness character portrayal, caricature, detective story and high farce welded, somewhat uneasily, together.

It did not do to look too closely. As one member observed: “I thoroughly enjoyed it as a page-turner. But I was left with the feeling of having eaten a fast-food takeaway, not a substantial meal!


Harari, Yuval Noah: Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind

Give us some Air!

Give us some Water!

Give us some Food!

Gimme Shelter!

Thanks, now I can check my Facebook account……

OK, this might be a slight over-simplification of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, or indeed a wildly inaccurate summary of Harari’s bestselling book, “Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind”, but here we were, the book group assembled on a Thursday evening to try and satisfy their need for love and belonging. Not of Generation, X, Y or Z, nor even Millennials, we were old enough to remember the ‘60s and hence we presumably weren’t there.

The proposer told us of how he had come across this book at a science exhibition, at a stall womanned by Delta-T Devices, who “aim to manufacture and sell instruments for use in work beneficial to the environment and directly related to human and animal welfare.” A further description of their moral stance can be found at https://www.delta-t.co.uk/.   Such a policy was dear to the author’s heart, although perhaps less important to the hunter-gatherers of the first few chapters.

Now an academic at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, with a PhD in Oxford in 2002, this book was published in Hebrew in 2011 and in English 2014 and has become an international success. The proposer described it as a “macro-history” painted with a very broad brush. We were grateful; at 498 pages for a macroscopic view, we suspect that the “micro-history” would have filled the Book Group’s schedule well beyond the period on Earth of the current membership. He praised its creativity and originality which had been recognised by a number of major and minor literary awards. He noted that the author had certain axes to grind, notably on animal rights (see above) and industrial farming, coloured perhaps by his vegan practice and living in a cooperative agricultural community. He was also openly gay and practised meditation. Ah yes, “I was a young man back in the 1960s”. As a rebuff to Generation I, he had also disposed of his smart phone!

Discussion opened out. Painted with a broad brush, I suppose it was inevitable that our members would pick holes. First to dive in was a member with knowledge of Australian history who pointed out inaccuracies on a number of key points on Aboriginal development. For example, on page 50 Harari talks of 200-600 tribes each with their own language, religion, norms and customs in the period between the cognitive and agricultural revolutions. Our member also disputed the suggestion that Australia was particularly white supremacist (p260). Another suggested that the extrapolation from bio-mimetic genetic algorithms (for optimisation in complex multimodal spaces) and genetic programming (p457) to machines taking over the world was rather fanciful, at least in the short term. The unfortunately quoted ‘human brain project’ had in fact been ‘rebooted’ due to the over-hyped claims. Another suggested that the opening line in “A Tale of Two Cities” by Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”,  referred to France in the mid to late 18th century, before not during the French Revolution. Several other examples were quoted. An absent member commented by email, that his  links, e.g. from Peugot to Shamens, are dubious or worse .He wondered too why… but we moved on.

However, right or wrong, can any single author, however advised by colleagues and his own research, hope to be wholly accurate on such a wide range of topics and academic disciplines? Can we? We recalled our August book by John Higgs; we thought that was sweeping and often contentious, and he only covered a single century! Do the alleged inaccuracies or dubious opinions invalidate the main thrust? 

The next speaker praised the book as an excellent synthesis of others’ research with a particular skill in simplifying complex topics for the general reader. As a good example of this, we referred to his discussions of economic theory in chapter 16, “The Capitalist Creed”. His breadth of coverage was “spellbinding” according to our speaker. He challenged current perspective without taking sides. Some questioned this, especially in view of the animal welfare polemic.

Our critic praised the idea of agriculture enslaving the population after a relatively Utopian hunter-gatherer existence. Again, this was questioned by another, suggesting that happiness and well-being as states of mind were relatively untouched, at least until page 421. “Are we happier?” Some were outraged by his discourse on chemical happiness in this chapter, and were rather dismayed that their imitative (Maslow) activities, whether Munro-bagging, global travel, or trying to get round a golf course in less than 100 shots were less than life-fulfilling. Unfortunately, Archaeology has not yet found a way to carbon date happiness and well-being from 70,000 years in the past so we can only speculate. (Afterthought: AI attempts to equip agents with imitative capabilities in order to build cooperative societies.)

Another compared Harari to a “spin doctor”, spinning his own perspective on historical fact or speculation according to his own rather than from an un-biased perspective. In the majority view, there was a shift from archaeological fact in the early chapters to a more opinionated spin in the later chapters. Another deficiency was the lack of acknowledgment of the role of the arts in enriching the human experience; when we do not spend our days wholly in hunting and gathering we have more time to appreciate the finer, esoteric outputs of the human mind and dexterity, in music, in painting and sculpture and so on. Is “Britain’s Got Talent” on tonight?

Turning to the later chapters, one of us was struck by the underlying pessimism about the future disappearance of our species, the cynicism and pessimism of reliance on chemical happiness and on “humans being turned into cyborgs” (p454). So the “curtain is about to drop on Sapiens history”. Certainly, humans do now have a probable capability for destruction, whether nuclear, chemical or social, unsurpassed due to the frantic rush to global communication and uniformity.  We pondered this pessimism and took it as a warning to cooperate at a global level rather than concentrate on local politics.  On the topics of individual survival and purpose, our email member suggested that the phrase “what do we want to want” was rather trite, referring to our stated, probably overstated aim to create amortal life by genetic engineering.

We turned again to Harari’s ideas on social bonding from an early stage of development, as for example in the ability to form large groups on the basis of shared values, to plan and carry out complex actions since the cognitive revolution, even when was no previous contact A parallel was drawn with recent work by Robin Dunbar at the Social and Evolutionary Research Science Group, also at Oxford.  In particular Dunbar mentioned that “the key function of music during its development and spread amongst human populations was its capacity to create and strengthen social bonds amongst interacting group members.” Our member talked of some of the key chemical differences between human and other brains, notably in fatty acid and iodine concentration. Apparently, there is an active debate as to whether aquatically sourced foods were key to human evolution, so that in general coastal species evolved preferentially. It is probably fair to say that none of those present had sufficient knowledge to decide, but that didn’t stop the discussion! However, one referred us to “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond, arguing that apparent differences in societies in different societies today were a product of environment and opportunity, or luck if you like, rather than inherent genetic differences.

To stylistic matters; why did Harari always say “she” rather than “he”, or indeed an impersonal noun such as person, or even hunter/gatherer? Ah! That was virtue signalling said another. “Fair comment”, said one, in these politically correct times one must not only be virtuous but let everyone know to enhance your social standing. Your scribe hadn’t heard of virtue signalling, perhaps because he hadn’t the signal opportunity. Perhaps the author is taking his own social analysis just too seriously?

There is so much in this book, and indeed that is its strength, that our own discussion cannot help but be superficial and misinterpret and omit key themes. Perhaps his treatment of religion is controversial, by for example equating communism and nationalism with Christianity and Buddhism . His comments about the contradictions of humanism (e.g.  p257) are provoking; how many humanists today align themselves today with the Nazi view on evolution?

So in conclusion, the general verdict of the group was that this was a book well worth reading, progressing from fact to opinion as evolutionary time developed perhaps, but always stimulating and creating difference of opinion. Indeed, one had to agree with Barack Obama’s book cover comment that this was “interesting and provocative”.

Higgs, John: Stranger Than We Can Imagine

The book’s proposer introduced it as a refreshing contrast to conventional histories of the 20th C with their emphasis on wars and political events.

He gave us a little background about the writer – he was not an academic, but had a varied career including working for GEC Marconi, directing children’s TV programmes, and producing video games.  Higgs claimed the idea for his book came from Salvador Dalí’s melting clock image, which made him think about connections between art and science (although Dalí himself claimed that his own inspiration came from seeing a melting Camembert cheese, not from ideas of relativity!)

Opening the discussion, one reader commented that the book reminded him of eclectic conversations in the pub, which tend to range far and wide.  He found the links rather tenuous, and so, although very enjoyable to read, the book lacked overall coherence.  One critic had apparently referred to Higgs as a plate-spinner – keeping many ideas up in the air at the same time.  Another reader characterised him as a storyteller, not a scholar.

There was some debate about Higgs’ characterisation of the 19th C as a time of relative stability.  Although it was admitted that the pace of change in the 20th C was more rapid, the view was expressed that other hundred year periods of history contained similar upheavals of ideas – for example brought about by artists, scientists and thinkers such as Galileo, da Vinci or Darwin.

Along with this dubious characterisation of the 19th C, others in the group took issue with some scientific or historical statements made by Higgs – for example his remarks on the lack of preparation of British troops for World War One.  It was felt that this slightly undermined trust in his conclusions about areas we didn’t know so much about.

Praise was bestowed on the final chapter ‘Networks’, and it was noted that in spite of gloomy predictions, the author ended on an optimistic note about humanity being ingenious enough to find a way through the global problems we are presently busily engaged in creating.  There was some agreement that he perhaps underplayed the population explosion and environmental degradation as key changes of the 20th century, even though he suggests that the 21st C may be the penultimate century for the human species.

Our conversation stayed on the topic of networks.  One member of the group, recently returned from China, reported that he was told that two million people are employed in monitoring the internet and working out what should be blocked from the rest of the population.  Apparently our own book group blog is blocked, as he tried to access it there!

We discussed the phenomenon of ‘selfies’, wondering if they were – as our generation tends to assume – manifestations of egocentrism and individualism, or, as Higgs suggests, evidence of the connectedness and community spirit of a younger generation.

We talked about the influence of online social networks, and the backlog of hidden information about such things as political corruption and child abuse in the Catholic Church that was consequently now coming to light.

We were interested in his analysis of economic ‘growth’, the mantra of politicians and economists the world over.  The narrowing down of ownership of the world’s wealth into fewer hands could in some respects be considered a retreat to the days of the all-powerful emperors that he talks about.  The new ‘emperors’ are global corporations, some of them richer than many countries.

On the topic of where power lay in the modern world, we wondered if western style democracies were adequate to the tasks ahead – referencing the recent votes to remove the UK from the EU, and to promote a dangerous demagogue to the presidency of the USA.  Our China expert compared how a high-speed rail link between Qinghai and Tibet had been completed rapidly, whereas the UK was still struggling with its HS2 rail link project over a comparatively tiny distance, because in a democracy we allow for objections to what government proposes.  We did not, however, go so far as to propose a new dictatorial system of government led by book groups.

We noted that Higgs digs up a number of interesting individuals, some of them quite obscure, who are either emblematic of some shift in thinking or deeply influential.  An example was the scientist brought back from the Gulag to lead the Russian space programme.  It was pointed out that the West was similarly secretive over some politically sensitive individuals – for example Alan Turing, now considered a seminal figure in the development of computing.

Referring to the book’s comments on the Rolling Stones and individualism, compared with the hippy togetherness represented by the later phase of the Beatles, it was pointed out that the Beatles broke up nearly fifty years ago whereas the Rolling Stones are still together!

In conclusion, we certainly agreed that the book kept us engaged, although not always convinced.  ‘Stranger Than We Can Imagine’ was felt to be interesting primarily because of the connections it made, rather than for its acuity in analysing any particular theme.  It had proved an excellent catalyst for conversation – perhaps even more so than the beers in the pub referenced at the beginning of our discussion.

Harding, Thomas: The House by the Lake

To my left stood a row of modern brick houses. To my right stretched an unkempt hedge. And then, there it was, my family’s house. It was smaller than I had remembered…hidden by bushes, vines and trees. Its windows were patched with plywood. The almost flat black roof was cracked and covered with fallen branches. The brick chimneys seemed to be crumbling, close to collapse…” The House by the Lake, p.2

The Monthly Book Group descended in force on Morningside “when frost was spectre-grey”. But it was Thomas Harding, not Thomas Hardy, they had come to discuss.

Outside the grey spectres of Br*xit and Tr*mp haunted the world, while the big news was that Hearts had drawn the Scottish Cup holders Hibs at Easter Road.

[Hmmmm……I like that so much I’ll say it again… “the Scottish Cup holders, Hibs”]

The proposer had been impressed when he had gone to hear Thomas Harding at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Pleasant, engaging and articulate man, riveting story, great photographs. So impressed, indeed, that he had gone to buy the book…. but the queue in the signing tent was long and he had instead gone outside to Waterstones, and bought the book at a discounted rate…

[a discounted rate?!…..run that by me again??]

Thomas Harding, aged 48, was a journalist by background. He had written two previous books, one of which “Hanns and Rudolf” (2013), had been particularly well-received. He was, though, perhaps best known as a maker of documentaries for television.

“The House by the Lake” (2015) told how Harding had returned to his grandmother’s summerhouse by a lake near Berlin. A Jew, she had been forced to leave to escape the Nazis. The house by the lake was now derelict. The book tells the story of his quest to save the house, and his unearthing of the histories of five previous families who lived in it. It shows how the house’s history intersects with that of Germany’s tragic century –  World Wars, genocide, military defeat, occupation.

The proposer found the book fascinating. Harding was able to weave the story together with facts from his own life. His research was very impressive, although, as he acknowledged, he had to invent many of the details in “faction” manner to bring the characters and events to life. He had shown great energy in pursuing his quest. Although he did not shirk from recording the faults and weaknesses of the people he spoke of, including family members, he did so in a restrained and non-judgemental way. He was the objective researcher, not the finger pointer.

The views of the group revealed a varied response. In the red corner:

This is a brilliant piece of very human research into a house and its owners over a period of a century. It says so much about German life with so many insights and a perspective that illuminates the earlier books the Group has read about war time Berlin and the Holocaust.”

Others agreed that following a house rather than a family was an excellent and unusual approach. It was gripping to see the twists and turns of the house’s fate as it descended from rich man’s luxury to doss-house.  And it was remarkable that so many historic events should take place so close to the house.  For example, the notorious Wannsee Conference, where the “Final Solution” was worked out, took place nearby on the shores of the same lake, and the Berlin Wall went through the garden.

The themes appealed to many:

 “We attach great sentimental value to houses, not just financial value, because we live in them as families. The story of the Wall was also gripping for me. And the book is a timely reminder when there is a rise across the Western world of nationalism and racism.” 

Another felt that this account of the rise of Nazi racist populism makes you aware of just how impossible it is to control events as an individual. You only have an illusion of control as an individual, a thought that terrified him.

“….yes, this section reminded me of Kafka’s ‘The Trial’, where an ordinary person is suddenly arrested by the state without reason and his world is turned upside down”.

Another fan of the book had lived in the Potsdam area, which made it easy to visualise the whole area covered by the book, and feel it come alive.

However, they were now coming out fighting from the blue corner …

“I started off thinking it would be very interesting, but after page 40 it became less so. The author seemed not to have an opinion on anything. There was no edge. In fact it annoyed me that he was such a nice guy…”

Another had similarly found the earlier characters interesting, but the post-war residents of the house were “deeply boring”. It would have been more interesting to learn instead how Elsie and Bella had lived in Britain, and how they had come to prosper in their new surroundings.

And, in a flurry of jabs, the history was “Readers Digesty” and the book was all a bit ‘Tiggerish”!

Moving in with a left hook to hit the book when it was down…. “It has a dull style, peppered with facts, and, as I read in bed, I found I nodded off pretty quickly. It was good, but could have been shorter and better written…

And a right hook from another…. “Harding does detail very convincingly the turn of the fascist screw on the Jews, but the rest is less detailed, and no character comes alive. He is a journalist, not a novelist”.

A red corner reader who had found the book “almost a page-turner” went over to the blue side with the advice that the author needs to get a life and stop going back into his family’s past. The house had become an obsession, a sort of “reverse request for immortality”.

And more comments that the book was not particularly well written. “It didn’t particularly excite me, other than the insight into how Jews felt as the seriousness of the Nazi threat began to emerge.  There is no real build-up of characters, and no scope to develop the history of the house. The book ends up as a fairly superficial social history of 100 years of Germany.

[This fist fight was all getting a bit confusing for your poor scribe. I knew I should never have started on that dry January….]

However, the contest began to subside, as the blue and red sluggers tired. They started to recognise a degree of substance in the views of the other corner, and looked for some common ground.

When I say ‘the whole world knows’, I really mean ‘I think’….”

The style was precise rather than evocative, and Harding was indeed no novelist, but he did not pretend to be. It was not all superficial, as some of the details were quite revelatory – for example the scale of reparations to Jewish people by Germans after the War.

The people in the house after the War might be boring, in the sense of being “low life” or dysfunctional. But wasn’t that part of the tragedy of the house itself, as it fell into disrepair?

Many found the account of life under Communism in East Germany fascinating, and were intrigued by the stories of life at that time, such as that of the drugs for children good at sports, and the incompetent spy.

And although it would indeed have been interesting to learn more about Elsie and Bella in Britain, wasn’t the point of the book to focus on what the house saw?

For the house by the end becomes an observer, a mute and fatalistic observer, of the lives of its residents. And, at least for some, the description of the final decline of the house achieved the sort of resonance absent in much of Harding’s precise writing.

But now they had punched themselves out altogether, and left the book behind.  They were off debating, and of course sorting out, schools education. And after sorting that out they were on to The Donald…..

Thinking that might take a little time, your international roving reporter started on the long journey home, fearful of grey spectres over his shoulder…

Hayes, Terry: I am Pilgrim

Your international correspondent was on an extended vineyard tour in the sunny south when the call came through to write the blog for the Monthly Book Group. An  honour, of course. The book, “I am Pilgrim”, they felt, would suit me…

And so to shivering Edinburgh, and a meeting timed to let members go on to watch France v Germany. The Crete-bronzed host admitted the choice of this blockbuster , which had been recommended by his sister, was not his normal style of book or of writing. But he had found the 2013 novel spellbinding.

It rattled along with great rhythm. Its settings tied in with the contemporary world and contemporary problems. It was difficult to write such a long novel and maintain interest, and the author’s screenwriting experience must have helped. The author managed to wrap a murder mystery and an attack on America into one more or less seamless whole.

The host liked the hero, Pilgrim, who was Mr Superman and very professional, but also very human. The other characters were a bit “filmish”, and larger than life.

The book was well received by the Group.  Despite weighing in at a massive 912 pages in one of the paperback editions (and thereby claiming the Monthly Book Group record) most had read it pretty quickly, such was its page-turning quality. It had something of the addictive quality of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. It was a great read, but not profound, nor meant to be.

The book had an American tinge, with American language and a colourful way of promoting people and ideas. The book’s forensic approach to detail was fascinating, if not always believable.

The plot structure consisted of two loosely related plots (so loosely connected, yours truly must have missed the connection while changing bottles of Tesco’s “Full Red”). Unusually, the sub-plot came first, in the fashion of “Psycho”, but this lent some complexity and texture to the novel.

The contemporary material about Muslim fundamentalist terrorism attracted much interest, and gave the book a degree of relevance not common in thrillers. One in our midst was particularly seized by the suggestion that an artificially constructed virus could be used for bio-terrorism. Some research had shown that such a synthetic virus had first been made in 2002. But cutting out eyes to defeat an iris scanner was more fanciful (and not original).

The wide geographical scope of the novel, ranging from west to east and back again, gave depth, and vicarious tourism interest, to the book.

Particularly compelling was the wide range of arcane knowledge that Pilgrim shared with us. Secrets about how to commit the perfect murder, how to detect the perfect murderer, about how the security services eavesdropped on us, about how to break into hotel safes (“I’ll never use one again!), about how to pilot your synthetic virus,  about the sexual effects of different drugs, about how to eliminate your past…. Not to mention how to save the world.

This gave a similar sense of pleasure to that of an Ian Fleming or a John Le Carré novel – that sense of being on the inside, in the know, understanding tradecraft. Our security expert confirmed that the security material was pretty accurate (although could the fundamentalist really have gained and abused his employment in a German chemical factory so easily?). And our scientific advisers even concluded us that it was plausible (ish) that a silhouette might have been captured on a mirror in the remarkable way suggested.

So – five stars all round? From most, but not from all.

One reader, who had amazingly managed to live a long life without either reading a James Bond book or seeing a James Bond film, cared neither for the blockbuster thriller genre nor for this example of it. 900 pages kept him busy but did not touch him. His emphatic put-down was that it amounted to nothing more than a very sophisticated Superman comic!

Another noted that reviews of the book split between five stars and one star without anything in between. Indeed in reading it he oscillated between five star judgements at the rekindling of his adolescent love of such books, and one star involuntary exclamations of “oh for f…’s sake!” at some contrived and implausible passage.

Others, when they stood back from the rush of the book, noted that Hayes (a journalist and screen-writer) was just a bit too obvious in constructing scenes that would help him sell the film-rights. And indeed MGM have duly bought the rights to film the book and envisage it as the start of a franchise.

Although English-born and spending much of his career in Australia, as well as in America, Hayes very visibly targets the American consumer. There are various sentimental strands (including a jolly noble President); lots of lurid violence but not much sex; and as little alcohol as during Prohibition. Nevertheless, Hayes might shock many Americans with his vivid descriptions of the realities of water-boarding, and with his forthright judgements on America’s ally Saudi Arabia. Hayes was remarkably judgemental about the different countries that Pilgrim travelled though.

So we then wandered down a few other avenues.

A small stylistic mannerism – of saying that the hero did “x” and would soon live to regret it– charmed some but irritated more. Picked up from Dan Brown?

Pilgrim was more an assassin than a spy. Was it only post Second World War that popular literature portrayed as admirable assassins (and other sundry paid killers such as hit-men and bounty hunters)?

And how trite was that “I am risen” ending?

But the footie was calling, and so we closed the file on Pilgrim. It’s top notch if you are looking for a compelling contemporary thriller, and the perfect companion for a long journey.

And, if your name is Terry Hayes, the passport to immeasurable wealth.

I am Pilgrim? I am Jealous.



Hesse, Hermann: Narcissus and Goldmund

woodstock2First Published 1930 (translated from the German by Leila Vennewitz, published by Peter Owen, London).

Who was Hermann Hesse? He was born in Germany in 1877 and he died in 1963. He was a seminarist, thinker, intellectual, drinker, smoker, gambler, poet, painter and pacifist. Above all, he was a seeker. He suffered mental health problems. He received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1945.

A lot of Hesse’s life has gone into this book. At the age of 15 he was sent to Maulbronn seminary to complete his education, but he fled after his failed suicide attempt. The story opens with a vivid description of the entrance to Mariabronn monastery, a fictional representation of his own Maulbronn, just thinly disguised.

At first sight, it is a simple story, a parable set in medieval Germany. Goldmund is the favourite pupil of the monk and scholar Narcissus. But Goldmund is not the scholastic type, he is passionate, sensual and artistic. He discovers this side of himself, when, with other boys, he creeps out of the monastery in the night to find village girls. He is obsessed by one in particular, and awakened to the possibilities offered by the outside world, he leaves the monastery to search for….what?…he isn’t sure. He leads a hedonistic life with many sexual adventures, and he becomes a sculptor. But he gets himself into deep trouble and is sentenced to death. However, he is finally rescued, forgiven and reconciled by Narcissus. We see how his character develops through education and experience, and we learn something of forgiveness and despair.

The proposer explained that he first read the book in the sixties, a time when young people were searching for meaning and understanding in their lives, and turning to dope, mysticism and psychedelic music. The book enjoyed popularity then, along with the birth of a powerful and iconoclastic popular culture. Likewise the 1920s, a period that may have shaped the young Hesse, was a time of decadence, promiscuity and jazz. The world may be quite different now, but the book is still a great read and has wide appeal.

There are a number of themes. The dichotomy between artist and thinker, described as Dionysian versus Apollonian after the names of the two sons of Zeus, is a central theme in this book and in other German literature, notably linked to Nietzsche‘s The Birth of Tragedy. To some extent, we all have this dualism within us, and so: is the novel really a metaphorical essay about the human psyche, inspired perhaps by Hesse’s reading of Jung and Freud?

Another theme is the mother figure. Goldmund never knew his mother, but we learn she was a dancer (a mother to be ashamed of, he is led to believe) and yet he seems to have a supernatural knowledge of her, and craves for her, perhaps because he thinks he has inherited her artistic attributes. Does she represent the Eve mother, part of the eternal story of the tortuous passage from birth to death? Much of the book is about Goldmund’s relationships with women, and the way his women are both a joy and an inspiration for great works of art, for example his sculpture, the Lydia-Madonna. As Goldmund dies he utters:

‘Without a mother one cannot love

Without a mother one cannot die’

Certainly, the sensual love of women plays a large part of Goldmund’s life and contrasts starkly with the monastic discipline.

‘… he learned many of the arts and ways of love, and absorbed the experiences of many lovers, learning to see, feel, touch and smell women in all their diversity’…’to be driven from one woman to the next so he might learn, and practice, ever more subtly in ever greater variety and depth, the skills of knowing and distinguishing’.

Sensual details here reminded us of the novels of DH Lawrence. At this point our proposer fondly recalled the average student party of the early 1970s, and a discussion ensued about when the swinging sixties started and ended, and what we all read and got up to in those heady days, and what we have become now. Yes, each one of us has a bit of Goldmund inside. But have we lost the spirit of self-inquiry, have we given up the search?

Certainly, we were touched by Goldmund’s abrupt decline as he grows older. There comes a time when he fails to score with women. They still find him amusing company, but his hair is going grey and they don’t want him any more. Oh dear, this part was a bit too close to the bone for most of us!

Death is another theme. We have a powerful portrayal of the Black Death, perhaps one of the most poignant and moving that has ever been written. We were reminded by one of our group that 40-60% of the population of Europe died. And we have plenty of murder in this book; in fact, Goldmund himself murders twice, and there are many reflections on death:

‘…the world is full of death, squatting on every fence, standing behind every tree, and it is useless for you to build walls and dormitories and chapels and churches. Death looks through the window and laughs’.

But death can be cheated through art, because art confers a kind of immortality on its creator:

‘from the farce and death-dance of human life, something remained and survived, works of art’… although …’even they perish … but they outlast many a human lifetime’…’it is spiritual’ … ’in this hour, Goldmund felt as if his life had acquired a meaning..’

What had been happening to Narcissus, the scholar and mentor, during the long period of Goldmund’s absence from the monastery? He had been living the spotless monastic life and now he was the abbot, but he always had been thinking of Goldmund. But even this godly man has had his moments of self-doubt. Narcissus wonders whether man really was created to study Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, and whether it has been proper to shut himself away from the maelstrom of the world and the cruel currents that had beset his friend and pupil Goldmund.  But we learn rather little of the detail of Narcissus’s life. In the end he serves as the mouthpiece for Hesse’s philosophy. He speaks for example of the nature of the thinking process, the conceptual abstractions of the Apollonian versus the mental images of the Dionysian. Also, he ponders on the contrasting nature of men and women. For example, of women he says:

‘Nature had so created them that desire automatically bore its own fruit, and the harvest of love was a child. In the man’s case, instead of this simple fertility there was eternal desire’.

Some of our group considered the philosophical parts were not so good, preferring the writer to ‘show not tell’. But Hesse saw himself as a teacher. He turned his back on Germany as early as 1912, and went to Berne in Switzerland where he established a prisoner-of-war welfare centre. Between 2014 and 2018 he published about 20 essays criticizing the war in German-language newspapers. He strongly opposed the rise of nationalism. He was one of the few German intellectuals not to be swayed by the general enthusiasm for the war. He became involved in writing after the War in order to rebuild Germany by educating its youth. In this book, for example, written in that period, he touches on anti-semitism, apparently anticipating, and warning against, the rise of Nazism. He relinquished his German citizenship in 1923. In World War II he became disillusioned, withdrew from the public and denounced the barbarity from afar.

We agreed that this book was a good choice. It’s a serious book and a thought-provoking story, and most of us found words of wisdom on its pages.