Locked-room Roman mystery

Robert Harris: ‘I’m very attracted to a contest between the sacred and the profane’. (Photo: Supplied)

Robert Harris: ‘I’m very attracted to a contest between the sacred and the profane’. (Photo: Supplied)

Seventeen new cardinals were inducted into the College of Cardinals a few weeks ago, on November 19. They had been named some six weeks earlier by Pope Francis and, significantly, 13 are under the age of 80 and so eligible to vote in a conclave to elect a new pope.

Electing the leader of a global religious community with a population almost as numerous as that of China falls to just 120 men, the cardinal-elector limit set by Pope Paul VI. As a news event, the election of a new pope vies with secular contests to see who will run the United States, India, Argentina, Malaysia, Nigeria.

Surely, though, campaigning for the papacy is absent or, at least, more dignified and principled?

Roman Catholic laypersons and other observers would like to think so, even when they know that not to be true. And it’s this intersection of devoutness and ambition that Robert Harris mines in Conclave (Hutchinson), his Vatican thriller about a papal election.

Despite the disclaimer in the author’s note at the front of the book that the deceased pope in Conclave is in no way a depiction of Pope Francis, it’s difficult not to think of the former Cardinal Bergolio as providing inspiration and a model.

But, speaking from his home in rural England, Harris tells me that the idea for Conclave began for him with CP Snow’s novel The Masters, about the election to the mastership of a Cambridge college. Snow, he says, is “pure politics in an enclosed space, all male: ambition and power in an institution”.

And there was the striking sight, during the 2005 and 2013 conclaves, of “cardinals clustered at the windows”, which made Harris think he was “looking at the Roman Senate; it grew at the back of my mind”.

A Cambridge classical education has helped Harris propel Roman aqueduct engineers (Pompeii) and orators (the Cicero trilogy of Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator) to the top of the bestseller lists.

The classical unities of time and place have served him well, and prompted what he describes as an “incongruous idea: the perversity of a novel about 118 old men locked in a room; there’s enough still of a journalist in me to be fascinated by secret places, stories hard to get at, still as much of a nut on secret, old, powerful elements”.

The great bonus is that this “rich heritage, an extraordinarily enclosed world, all happens to be true, not exaggerated. There is mystery, and at the pure narrative level, it’s interesting”.

Harris is conscientious and punctilious in Conclave, never assuming that the reader will be familiar with the arcane world of the papal election. There are telling details, gathered from extensive reading listed in the acknowledgements; never for Harris the superficiality of some novelists and many journalists.

He has kept faith with the ideological factions that the last two conclaves have thrown up. Representing these are a handful of cardinals: Aldo Bellini, Italian, the Vatican Secretary of State, a theological liberal; Joseph Tremblay, Canadian, the Camerlengo (Chamberlain), ideologically fluid; Joshua Adeyemi, Nigerian, the confessor-in-chief, theologically conservative; Goffredo Tedesco, Venetian, Patriarch of Venice, a theological reactionary; and Jacopo Lomeli, Italian, Dean of the College of Cardinals, embracing uncertainty.

“I like the restrictions,” says Harris of the conclave process. “The formal piety and conventions observing a unity of time and place. The conclave grinds forward, unstoppable. I’m very attracted to a contest between the sacred and the profane.”

He’s drawn also to the factotum, the dogsbody. “I’m always impressed by people who have to make things work. People trying to do their duty; they have to get their hands dirty; they are doers. Not Caesar, but people with doubt who doggedly do.”

Of the five principal cardinals, it is the dean, Lomeli, who has to make the conclave work. It is of Lomeli that Harris writes: “Servus fidelis. A faithful servant. It was on his coat of arms. A prosaic motto for a prosaic man.

A manager ...

“Very well then, he thought.

Manage.”

“He’s the cardinal as a fixer. He’s struggling with faith, battling with inner demons. It’s a strange, perverse idea of heroes. I’m not a Catholic, not even baptised. How to credibly create the person I would like to have been if I had enough faith?”

Harris emphasises Lomeli’s “absence of certainty”. He’s not one who would have burnt people at the stake or smashed things, says Harris, because Lomeli advances “the theological case for doubt: without doubt there can be no faith”.

The polar opposite to the dean is the leonine cardinal from Venice, Tedesco. Says Harris: “The Tedescos of the world can be very compelling figures. They have a heroic refusal

to compromise or yield to the stresses and strains of the modern world.”

In making Tedesco such an arch-conservative, Harris breaks with the characters and legacies of two great patriarchs of Venice, both of whom were pope. Angelo Roncalli became Pope St John XXIII, the most loved pope of modern times and the great reformer who summoned the second Vatican Council. Albino Luciani was Pope John Paul I for 34 days before succumbing, apparently to a heart attack; like Pope Francis, he was strongly pastoral, approachable and free of princely arrogance.

Harris finds the “assault on Francis astonishing”. He compares that “vituperation” with an Oxbridge senior common room with “clever people attacking one another in spectacular terms”.

There is, he says, “a compulsion about the Catholic Church; people are fascinated by it. You write what interests you: the pure, visceral, raw nature of it coated and elevated by the presence of God, by the whole world watching history suspended in that small room.”

The “small room” being the Sistine Chapel, in which the cardinal-electors gather to discuss and vote.

Beyond that process and result is another: “The Roman Catholic Church is the ark in which the [Roman] Empire survived to the present day, with its patriarchal structures and philosophy. You just have to go to Naples to see: old ladies in black sitting in doorways.

“Here I am in rural England. I can think of writing anything about this institution. It made me think that perhaps I was writing about the wrong religion. It made one hesitate. It was a telling moment. Faith has made a big comeback in the world in a way that I never imagined growing up in England in the Fifties and Sixties.”

His powers of narrative twist and turn are undimmed in Conclave. Just as the conclave is about to begin, a cardinal of whom no one has heard arrives at the gates, with a letter of appointment from the late pope. He is Vincent Cardinal Benítez, Archbishop of Baghdad, made cardinal in pectore (“in the heart”) — the very old provision allowing a pope to create a cardinal in secret from all but the pope and the cardinal himself.

“Lomeli has this desire to keep the show on the road; tolerance; fondness for doubt,” says Harris. Those explain why he regards the dean as one of his favourite characters. And it is to Lomeli and to one ingenious Harris jump-of-mind that the denouement falls. (And I’ve given nothing away either above or below.)

How did the author hit upon this particular twist? “Imagination is the first ghostly author. Once something has been imagined, it becomes possible.”

So too with his idea for his next novel — although he words it as “for a novel” — a story set in Germany in the 1930s. “My appetite for work has increased,” he says. “Living in my own head was quite a pleasant refuge in my 30s and early 40s, but now I feel time pressing.”

Detained, tortured, persecuted, Benítez in Conclave shows how fiction can prefigure fact or, alternatively, how truth really is stranger than fiction. Of the 17 new cardinals Pope Francis named, last to be announced was an Albanian priest, Father Ernest Simoni, who turned 88 on October 18.

The pope had met him in 2014 and been moved to tears on hearing of Simoni’s three decades in prison and enduring forced labour under Albania’s formerly atheistic regime. Ordained in 1956, Simoni was arrested while celebrating Mass on Christmas Eve in 1963. He was sentenced to death by firing squad, a fate delayed by beatings, three months in solitary confinement and torture for refusal to denounce the church.

When the death sentence was commuted, he was freed, only to be re-arrested and sent to a prison labour camp, working first in a mine for 18 years and then for 10 years in sewage canals.

What is Benítez’s “back story”? Which of the cardinals becomes pope? You’ll have to read Harris for that, while keeping in mind the veracity of the cover line on the book’s back jacket: “The power of God. The ambition of men.”

Darryl Accone

Darryl Accone

Darryl Accone is books editor of the Mail & Guardian and director of the annual M&G Literary Festival. All Under Heaven, the memoir of his (mainly) Chinese family in South Africa (David Philip, 2004), was shortlisted for the 2005 Alan Paton Award. Accone is a Fellow of the Salzburg Seminar and the International Writers Workshop of Hong Kong Baptist University. Read more from Darryl Accone

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