Conclave, by Robert Harris

>> Friday, August 31, 2018

TITLE: Conclave
AUTHOR: Robert Harris

PAGES: 416

SETTING: Contemporary Vatican
TYPE: Fiction

The best-selling author of Enigma and Fatherland turns to today's Vatican in a ripped-from-the-headlines novel, and gives us his most ambitious, page-turning thriller yet--where the power of God is nearly equaled by the ambition of men.

The Pope is dead.

Behind the locked doors of the Sistine Chapel, one hundred and eighteen cardinals from all over the globe will cast their votes in the world’s most secretive election.

They are holy men. But they have ambition. And they have rivals.

Over the next seventy-two hours one of them will become the most powerful spiritual figure on earth.
A few years ago I read Harris' Pompeii. I loved it. I wondered before I started it how he'd manage to create suspense when we all knew exactly what was coming, but he somehow did -and how! So when I heard he'd written a book set in the Vatican, during a conclave, I never even questioned whether he'd be able to make a story about a mostly geriatric group of men voting again and again exciting. I knew he would.

Conclave is narrated from the point of view of Cardinal Jacopo Lomeli. After a long career spent mostly working on official Vatican positions, he's now the Dean of the College of Cardinals and experiencing a bit of a crisis of faith. He's even spoken to the Pope (to whom he's pretty close) about resigning, but the Pope asked him not to, as his services as a manager are too valuable to him (which didn't help Lomeli's crisis of faith at all!).

And then the Pope dies, quite unexpectedly. As Dean, Lomeli has the responsibility of convening the conclave, the gathering that will elect a new Pope, and to preside over the proceedings. And it's going to be a big one. The Pope in the story is very clearly modelled on Pope Francis, in that he has shunned a lot of the pomp normally associated with the position and made changes that have incensed the more conservative of the cardinals. The strong reaction he's generated in them means that the Catholic Church is poised at a very critical point, which will decide in which direction it will go. Lomeli himself is on the more progressive side, but as Dean, he must be fair to all sides.

Organising a conclave is serious business, with over 100 cardinals arriving from all over the world and spending several days sequestered at the Vatican, fiercely lobbying each other for votes while pretending they're not doing so. And this time, there's plenty of intrigue going on. There are claims that one of the front-runners was dismissed from his position by the Pope right before he died, but he denies it, and there's no proof. Lomeli feels he must get to the bottom of this before any definitive votes. A mysterious new cardinal, apparently created in secret by the Pope (that secrecy for reasons that make complete sense), arrives unexpectedly and joins the conclave. And then there's the weird behaviour of one of the nuns who are taking care of the cooking and cleaning during the conclave -just what is that about?

I loved every minute of this book. The characters are super interesting -not just Lomeli, who I found incredibly endearing, but all the other many cardinals. They're well-developed as individual characters, for all that they also symbolise the different factions (e.g. the old-school Italian who wants to turn back Vatican II, the charismatic Nigerian cardinal who is just as, if not more, conservative, the low-key guy who would have been just the right candidate in other years, but is a bit too uninspiring this time around, etc.). Seeing them all interact was gripping. The whole book was gripping, even when we were spending page after page on a slow count of votes. I've no idea how Harris did that.

I’m someone who’s quite critical of the Catholic Church -quite common in someone who was brought up as a Catholic but is categorically not one now (I'd argue that I was never really one, in fact, for all that I was baptised and took first communion). But one of the things I really liked about this book is that there are no out and out villains here. The narrative is very clearly on the side of the progressives who want to modernise the church and the election of the conservative faction is portrayed as clearly bad for the Church and the world. But the conservatives themselves are not demonised. They are good people who want to do what they clearly think is best. “We” simply disagree with them about what is best. “We” don’t think they’re evil or stupid. There are also a couple of individual characters who have done things that are very wrong and which disqualify them as candidates. Again, they are not demonised, but portrayed as human men who have made mistakes. (Of course, Harris stays far, far away from any child abuse issues here, otherwise that equanimity and even-handedness would not have been that suitable). Anyway, I really appreciated the way this created a much more realistic conflict. This is not The Da Vinci Code!

For all that I adored the book, I found myself slightly disappointed by the ending. I was expecting a massive twist, and… well, I got what Harris clearly thought was a massive twist. My reaction was more: "ehh...".

This is EXTREMELY spoilery, so discussion whited out and below.








So, it turns out that the person who is (very surprisingly) elected pope has… well, it’s never explained in detail, but the best description is probably “ambiguous genitalia”. This is implied to be quite subversive, but I just didn’t think it was, at least not compared to the stuff I had been imagining. After all, this is simply yet another cis man, just one with non-typical genitalia. He has always identified as male, he has always been brought up as male, he has always presented as male. Big deal. I was imagining woman, trans man, or even some sort of impostor who wasn’t actually the cardinal he was supposed to be (now that one would have been a shocker, although I admit, not in keeping with the even-handedness of the rest of the book).

Still, even with that, this was amazing. Highly recommended.

MY GRADE: This was an A- for me.


Bona Caballero 31 August 2018 at 11:22  

Great review! Sometimes I forget how much I have enjoyed Harris' books. I'll read this one soon.

Rosario 8 September 2018 at 05:53  

I've only read Pompeii so far, I need to pick up some more!

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