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!

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