Thursday, 20 October 2016
Conclave by Robert Harris
[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.
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.