Thursday, 20 October 2016

Conclave by Robert Harris

 
published 2016


 
Conclave
 


[The cardinals are gathering at the Vatican to elect a new Pope]


Across the piazza, in the nearest corner of the basilica, the melodious clock chimed the four quarter-hours in quick succession; then the great bell of St Peter’s tolled three. The anxious security men in their short black coats strutted and turned and fretted like crows.

A few minutes later, the first of the cardinals appeared. They were wearing their everyday long black cassocks with red piping, with wide red silk sashes tied at their waists and red skullcaps on their heads. They climbed the slope from the direction of the Palace of the Holy Office. A member of the Swiss Guard in his plumed helmet walked with them, carrying a halberd. It might have been a scene from the sixteenth century, except for the noise of their wheeled suitcases, clattering over the cobbles.


 
Processed with Snapseed.


commentary: Continuing the Italian theme this week – a novel set in Vatican City, inside Rome.

That final sentence in the extract, about the 16th Century, could apply to a lot of scenes in the book – there are moments of unchanged traditional magnificence, then everyone climbs into black minivans, or works the photocopier, or gets a tray of food at the cafeteria. It’s one of the many reasons that a book about an obscure religious ritual becomes absolutely unputdownable – you feel Harris has researched thoroughly how the election works, and then put in the local contemporary details and the tension and plot turns we expect from him. The result is another winner from the man who brought us Enigma and Ghost Writer and An Officer and a Spy and made them such page-turners.

This one is set in the very near future and a Pope (who is not the current one, but resembles him) has died. We see the action through the eyes of one of his senior clerics, Cardinal Lomeli, who has the duty of organizing the Conclave, the meeting of Cardinals who will elect the new Pope. The main action of the book takes place over a very short time, around 72 hours: the book has an excellent rhythm of sections set in the Sistine Chapel, where the long-drawn-out secret ballots take place, and then the buzz and gossip and electioneering in the block where the Cardinals are saying.

There are a couple of scandals and shocks to unfold, and there is plenty of discussion of the different wings of the church – liberal and conservative. The thoughts and considerations seem convincing, although of course we can never know, as the whole process always has been and will remain very secretive.

There are special opportunities for Catholics to enjoy this book, but I think the plot and the curiosity value would entertain everyone. In fact, I anticipated at least two of the surprises in the book, and afterwards (but only afterwards, after breathlessly racing through the final third with no time for thought) had some questions about certain issues. But none of that prevented me from enjoying the book hugely, and feeling I had been informed as well as entertained. Highly recommended.

With thanks to TKR for the excellent gift…

The picture, from the Library of Congress, is of Cardinal Giorgio Gusmini, who was Archbishop of Bologna, and died in 1921. (He is wearing a biretta rather than the skullcap, zucchetto, mentioned).

The second picture, by my favourite photographer, Denise Perry (see her website here, and see her pictures all over the blog, for example here), shows young priests (NOT Cardinals) choosing books in a bookshop in Florence.
















14 comments:

  1. What an interesting 'inside look' at the selection of a new Pope, Moira! The process isn't one that I think a lot of people understand clearly, so it's pulling the curtain back, so to speak. And I know exactly what you mean about that blend of timeless tradition/magnificence, etc., blended with modern realities. That takes a deft hand, no doubt. I like the writing style of the snippet that you shared, too. Fascinating!

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    1. The process has always been mysterious, and Harris really opens it up, along with giving us a tense plot. What more could you ask for?

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  2. Ok you've convinced me. I've been prevaricating about this because I've not had much luck with Harris' non historical novels in the past but as a somewhat conflictedly lapsed Catholic I love reading about goings on in the church.

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    1. As I say, particularly fascinating to current or past Catholics - worth a look. I don't get on with his ancient Rome ones, but have very much liked some of the others.

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  3. It does sound fascinating! Robert Harris can write about anything and make it thrilling.

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    1. Exactly Chrissie - I keep trying to analyse how he does it, and then I get lost in the plot...

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  4. Moira, having read FATHERLAND recently, I want to read everything else by Robert Harris. His journalistic background reflected in that one alternate history book about high-profile murders casting a shadow on Hitler's 75th birthday celebrations. I loved his narrative style. It reminded me of Martin Cruz Smith's "Gorky Park." You don't want to be in Berlin or Moscow.

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    1. Yes I agree, Prashant, he's an author who makes you want to pursue his works. (Though actually I don't like his books set in ancient Rome so much.) I really like Enigma.

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  5. Moira: I believe I will read Conclave. It sounds like a very good book. I have read Final Conclave by Malachi Martin. Well written but much of the book was a polemic seeing Russian spies active in the Vatican. As well Martin disliked the changes to the Church arising from the Second Vatican Council.

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    1. I don't think I know that book - did you blog on it? I do think you might be interested in this one, I'd love to hear your opinion.

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  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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    1. So sorry Bill, I accidentally deleted your comment when I meant to press 'reply.

      So Bill said: Moira: It was before my blogging days. He returned to the subject of conclaves in Vatican which I read quite awhile ago and may resurrect a short review.

      -- Bill, I will look out for that in the future. And will try not to delete any more comments (it is Monday morning, that's my excuse...)

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  7. This post makes me want to read more Robert Harris. (I have too many authors like that.)

    I have Ghost Writer and An Officer and a Spy and Fatherland and any one of those would be an interesting read.

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    1. Yes indeed, I think you would enjoy them, and they are very readable. I would go for Ghost Writer first if I were you.

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