Richard and Judy Review Conclave by Robert Harris
"…the twist at the end is nothing short of sensational. A richly rewarding read."
Many of us have been reading Harris since 1992, when his first novel (and bestseller) Fatherland was published. Even back then I’d been expecting something good: Robert wrote an excellent weekly political column in the Sunday Times which I never missed. I always tease him about the very last one he wrote: John Major had just won a surprise election victory for the Tories against Labour’s Neil Kinnock and Harris had stalked off in a strop (he’s on the left, is our Bob), saying in effect the country was done for and he was so fed up he was off to write a novel.
Kinnock’s loss was our gain – Fatherland (set in an alternative historical landscape where Hitler won the war and modern transatlantic passenger jets have swastikas emblazoned on their fuselages and tails – a typical Harris detail) was unputdownable, and that’s the word to describe everything he’s written since.
Conclave is set in the near future. The Pope is dead: long live the Pope… but who will it be? One hundred cardinals come to Rome from all corners of the world and begin a series of secret meetings – conclaves – to decide who the most powerful spiritual leader on the planet should be.
Ballot follows upon ballot; favourites fall, outsiders nose ahead, plots swirl and backs are stabbed (metaphorically; these are after all men of God). Harris’s skill is to make us care, and care passionately, about which candidates go through to the next round of voting. And – and this is all I’m going to say about the final chapter – the twist at the end is nothing short of sensational. A richly rewarding read.
"Sex and sexuality could be said to be at the heart of this story. Will you enjoy it? Is the Pope a Catholic?"
As Richard says, Harris’s attention to detail is a hallmark of his novels – and sometimes there’s almost too much of it.
‘He had never forgotten filing past Pope Paul VI’s body in St Peter’s in 1978: in the August heat the face had turned greyish-green, the jaw had sagged, and there was a definite whiff of corruption.’
Quick, pass the incense burner, someone.
Conclave uses the classic locked room schtick beloved of so many novelists. All those powerful men trapped in the same chamber. No-one allowed out until a decision has been reached. No outsiders allowed in. Total secrecy. It makes for a claustrophobic, intense atmosphere where suspicion and intrigue can run riot.
Our hero is Cardinal Lomeli, who must preside over the conclave and see fair play and Godly obedience. One of the underlying themes is sexual temptation; it hangs in the air like the lingering aroma of incense. Even Lomeli is not immune: he goes to sleep with his arms crossed over his chest to keep sinful urges at bay. Another nice Harris detail.
Indeed sex and sexuality could be said to be at the heart of this story. Will you enjoy it? Is the Pope a Catholic?
Did you know how Conclave was going to end before you started writing it? It’s one heck of a twist!
Yes, I had the idea before I started writing, although I couldn’t be sure it would work, so I kept an alternative ending up my sleeve, just in case. I know some people love it, some hate it. All I can say is that it is implied throughout the novel – it is what the novel is about in many ways – and is not something that was simply tacked on for effect.
Do you believe that there are some cardinals and other senior figures in the Catholic church who have no more faith or belief in God than has a ferret, and the only power and glory they’re interested in is their own?
I’m sure there must occasionally be senior figures who have suffered a crisis of faith but who choose to go through the motions of belief rather than give up their lifestyle. But the odds against becoming a cardinal are so enormous, no one could ever pursue it as a ‘career’in the normal sense; it is a vocation. Many bishops and cardinals commit sins, of course, but that is not the same as not believing in God.
Was this a tough research assignment? You meticulously use real titles and positions throughout, for authenticity.
The research was very enjoyable, although intellectually quite demanding, as it required me not only to understand the structure of the Catholic Church – hence the use of real titles and positions – but also its theology. Early on, I read the Gospels, and they provided me with a kind of anchor, as everything in the Church and the way the cardinals behave and even speak, goes back to the life of Christ.
You always choose big canvases for your novels – a Nazi victory over Britain in Fatherland; a Blair-like British ex-prime minister fighting to restore his reputation in The Ghost, the battle for the Papacy in this one… are you never tempted to set a novel in, say, Milton Keynes in 1960 with a milkman as the main character?
I’m most interested in the subject of power – how it is attained, and what attaining it does to the people who possess it. If the milkman in 1960 in Milton Keynes ended up becoming an MP, and then a Cabinet Minister, and if it turned out he had an affair with someone when he was doing his rounds, and if that affair later came back to haunt him, then yes, I’d write about that. Come to think of it, it’s not a bad idea . . .
- Robert Harris is a master thriller writer. Discuss how he structures the novel.
- Why do you think the Vatican provides such a good setting for a thriller?
- How do you think the author’s previous experience as a political journalist informs his writing style and choice of subjects?
- Discuss the ending of the novel.
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