Conspirata, by Robert Harris

This 2009 work is history as a novel—and less a novel as history, as I wrote regarding the first volume in this series, Imperium. Because its emphasis here is on history. We are immediately with Marcus Tullius Cicero in the Rome of 63 BC, as this newly elected consul (head of the Roman senate) struggles to preserve the nation’s republican government.

Meanwhile, its other characters are also historic. A young Julius Caesar hovers nearby as a threat to overthrow the republic; and Pompey, who heads Rome’s army in the eastern Mediterranean, is another threat to return at any time and assume leadership himself. Meanwhile, other adversaries to Cicero in Rome mark the difficult road he faces in preserving the Roman Republic. They include such powerful figures as Crassus, Clodius, Catilina, and, at times, the mysterious Cato.

Caesar is mainly an onlooker as this novel begins, although he does maneuver himself into the role of pontus maximus, Rome’s religious leader. The main political concern of everyone early on is Pompey, and when he will return and will he bring his army to back him up.

We follow all this through the narrative voice of Tiro, Cicero’s devoted and intelligent private secretary, a slave who transcribes his owner’s conversations and speeches. Presumably, they are largely the actual words Cicero once spoke, and through Tiro’s efforts have come down to us through history. But the loyal slave has also been given by Harris the intelligence and wit that enlivens the political and social intrigue around Cicero.

Indeed, the website Leserglede, citing this intrigue, calls this novel “a very strong tale of shifting alliances, greed, sexual liaisons, personal ambition, love, hate, and total betrayal among the elites of Rome.”

The novel is divided into two parts, the first as Cicero leads the government as the chief consul in the Senate, faces an assassination plot, and maneuvers the political process to support the Roman constitution and preserve its government. For this, he uses primarily his intelligence, his wit, and his powers of oratory. The second part concerns his next five years out of office, as he valiantly strives to prevent Pompey, first, and then Caesar from coordinating their efforts and establishing a dictatorship.

Throughout, these pages offer a marvelous interpretation of history. Yes, this is Harris’ interpretation, especially, I think, toward the end, when Cicero’s outcome verges on injustice and tragedy. But the overall result is still history. If this is a novel, however, it is not literature. For as clear as the events are, they are more a re-creation than a creation. The emphasis is more on what happens, rather than on why. The emphasis is more on narrative than on interpretation.

We witness the events, therefore, and their political impact, but we do not experience them emotionally, not as Cicero did, nor as Tiro did. We remain outside these characters’ consciousness. We are observers. We witness history, and it is vividly presented, but it does not involve us. It does not because we know it is history, we know it is foreordained, and that the characters are not in charge of their destiny, as fictional characters need to be.

But I might also note what I wrote after reading Imperium: “It is the personal side of Cicero’s life that is missing here, and that might have turned this rich novel into a truly literary work….Yet Harris might argue, with some legitimacy, that he is dealing here with historic figures, that we know what they did but that to try to enter their minds would be presumptuous, even foolhardy. That he would prefer to be faithful to events, and to make them accessible to the general reader, rather than to speculate on what those characters were like within. Shakespeare may have explored their inner thoughts, but how many Shakespeares have there been? (And how many historians would there be to jump on him, Harris, for doing this?)”

My response today is that as foolhardy as such introspection might be, it is still the road to literature, as other classical authors besides Shakespeare have shown. Although I will acknowledge that the depth, the introspection, is often done through concurrent fictional characters. Whereas, in this case, the most interesting aspect of Cicero’s personal life is his complex relationship with his wife Terentia, whom he married for wealth and position. But to examine this marriage at length would, unfortunately, deflect the reader from the political intrigue that is the heart of this novel.

Indeed, Harris himself summed up his approach to this work during an NPR interview, and it is a political approach. “In a way, this whole trilogy — and this book in particular — is a duel between Cicero and Caesar— two ambitious men, but with very different forms of ambition….Cicero’s ambition is to rise within the system. Caesar’s desire is to smash the republic and remake it in his own image. And the clash between these two men, who are sort of, in a way, almost wary friends and admirers—that’s really the dynamic of the book. And I believe that Cicero has had a less good shake from history than Caesar.”

Yet, given the lack of psychological depth, there is another kind of artistry here. For the dramatic opening scene, with its discovery of a murdered boy, a human sacrifice, reverberates at the end, as it is connected to Cicero’s fate—as are many of his good actions as consul. For example, after he avoids the threat to his own life, and, as consul, is able to save Rome from the takeover by Catilina, Cicero also begins to sow the seeds of his own vulnerability, for his enemies will later take advantage of his persistent claim that he has been the savior of Rome.

In fact, Cicero exposes himself to actual prosecution, since after arresting Catilina’s co-conspirators, given that martial law existed, he permitted their execution without a trial. Which was contrary to his professed belief in the rule of law. (Indeed, the senate debate on this matter, with interventions against death by Caesar and for death by Cato is a highlight of the book,)

And so, when Cicero’s term as consul ends, the many who supported Catilina are now happy to see Cicero himself accused of bypassing the rule of law. This happens after Clodius, on trial for profaning secret female rites, and having had his alibi refuted by Cicero’s damning testimony, has bribed enough jurists to get himself acquitted—and then, in revenge, waits patiently to build a case against Cicero. Specifically, he gets elected as a tribune, and persuades his fellow legislators to pass a decree that says that anyone who aids a person who has executed others without a trial (which is Cicero) now faces the death penalty themselves.

The edict, in effect, condemns Cicero into exile, since no one can now aid him. And because to defend his own honor in a separate case he had specifically accused Caesar of supporting Catalina’s plan to subvert the government, he himself has become vulnerable. Even though Caesar has sworn to allow nothing to happen to him. Thus, the grandeur, the corruption, and, most of all, the hypocrisy of Rome is vividly portrayed, with all the political maneuvering that makes the infighting particularly fascinating.

What is interesting is that, first, Cicero, while raised in moderate wealth, is not recognized as a member of the elite. He is a self-made man. He earned his election as consul in the senate, a prestigious position, by his forthright intelligence, his eloquence, and his political smarts. And that, second, this man of justice is not an ally of the poor. For he calls them “the mob,” because he sees them being used in the power grab by Caesar and others of the elite. With the result is that he is despised by two opposing camps, both the wealthy patricians and the neglected populists.

What becomes confusing to the modern reader is that aligned against Cicero are the people he is presumably helping. These are the plebeians, the poor, the common people, who are represented by the tribunes and who have been seduced by Caesar; whereas, he seeks his allies among the nobles in the senate, as he tries to preserve the constitution and republican form of government. Which situation is contrary to today’s political environment, where we are used to the rich nobility seeking power and wealth, while it is the plebeians who seek fairness and justice.

This is the second in a trilogy of novels that recreates Cicero’s life. I enjoyed the first novel, Imperium, about Cicero’s rise to power, and this one as well. Here is a fascinating reading experience, a political thriller in its own terms, as it brings vividly to life a lesson in history. I look forward to the final volume, and expect it to be written on the same level. For what does literature matter, when an author brings to such vivid life the complexities of an ancient era? (March, 2015)

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The Prisoner of Heaven, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

This 2011 work is a highly readable commercial novel, but another step down from the literary promise of The Shadow of the Wind. With some of the same characters from Shadow and The Angel’s Game, this is again a story of Barcelona, books, and intrigue. The intrigue occurs on two levels, more significantly when Franco takes power in 1939, but also when the novel’s resolution occurs almost twenty years later.

The novel begins in 1957 when the hero Daniel Sempere, a boy in Shadow and now distraught over the possible infidelity of his wife Bea, reveals that his older friend, Fermin Romero de Torres is under even greater distress because of events that occurred under Franco in a Barcelona prison castle in 1939. Fermin was an assumed name his friend used, when he was arrested as a spy and put in prison; and now he must not only resolve a threat that harkens back to that era but also officially produce new papers in that name twenty years later so he can marry Bernarda, his true love.

Those in prison with Fermin back in ‘39 include author David Martin, a hero from earlier books in this series, and Sebastian Salgado, a former jewel thief who has secreted away a rich treasure from his last escapade. These Franco prisoners undergo torture, privation, and blackmail, witness arbitrary executions, and face a life without hope. In fact, the horrendous life in this prison run by the cruel and ambitious Mauricio Valls is the finest portion of this novel, suggesting the literary depths that the author once achieved.

But the novel’s early emphasis on the texture of life under Franco shifts to an emphasis on the characters’ personal lives—and on the plot—once Fermin cleverly escapes from prison and is pursued by Valls. At the same time, Isabella, not yet David’s mother, is trying to get Martin freed from prison, and Daniel wonders, a generation later, if she actually loved Martin and that Martin was his real father.

The remainder of Daniel’s narration concerns his efforts to find papers for Fermin, learn who is real father is, and revenge himself on Valls, whom he believes had murdered his mother. But these efforts seem inconsequential, compared to Fermin’s adventures: his flight from Barcelona, his long recuperation, and his return to Barcelona to reunite with Daniel and then both resolve his identity issue and discover the jewels that the prisoner Salgado had hidden away.

Even if Daniel narrates much of this novel, and has his own concerns, the main character is Fermin. He is not only a much more interesting person than Daniel, but so are his daring adventures. Especially in the prison and with his escape, but also in the 1957 scenes narrated by Daniel. I would also note that even the minor male figures, such as the letter-writer and the priest, imbed themselves in the reader’s memory—unlike the women, especially wife Bea and fiancée Bernarda, whose lack of depth diminishes the personal motivations of both Daniel and Fermin.

None of these efforts, however, by either Daniel or Fermin, reaches the significance or complexity of the issues the characters confronted in The Shadow of the Wind. The issues here are personal, whether motivated by revenge or love or greed. Moreover, The Cemetery of Forbidden Books, so provocative an idea in the earlier books, does not appear here until the final pages, when it seems tacked on, as if to provide a possible (but is it believable?) conclusion to David Martin’s bond with Daniel’s mother.

The other mystery we are left with is the existence of Valls, who has disappeared two decades later. An epilogue suggests that the answer will come with a fourth volume in this series. But one anticipates that such a novel will continue on the level of mere personal motivation, that it will boast no psychological, philosophical, or political developments that will enable that upcoming story to regain for Ruiz Zafon his former literary significance. (March, 2015)

TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann

Here is a beautiful 2013 novel. I use that word again. But it truly is. It also has an unusual structure, a story told across seven time zones, a back and forth structure that only a master author could bring together and make work. But this is also, and not least, a story of Ireland across those eras.

The first time zone is 1919, when we join Adcock and Brown in a beautifully evoked flight, as they become the first pilots to cross the Atlantic non-stop. And in an insignificant moment before take-off, Lottie, a young female photographer hands the pilots a letter written by her mother Emily. In the second time zone, 1845, Frederick Douglass visits Dublin  to press the cause of abolition that has brought him to Ireland. While there, he catches the eye of a fictional young maid named Lily, but the entire emphasis is on a deeply-felt portrait of Douglass.

In the third time zone, 1998, we jump ahead to follow former Senator George Mitchell as he negotiates peace between the Protestant and Catholic factions in Northern Ireland. This Good Friday section seems least connected to the remainder of the novel, as effective at it is, and as understanding as it is of Mitchell the person. It does not enter the negotiations themselves, but its portrayal of Mitchell establishes the presence of the modern Troubles. These strong portraits of Mitchell and Douglass help provide the historic verisimilitude against which the fictional characters are created.

The next section opens in 1863, when that maid Lily we met in 1845 is now a nurse in the Civil War, and has volunteered to serve at the front in order to find her illegitimate son who has enlisted. We follow her as she next marries for security and has five sons and one daughter, Emily. With Emily, she witnesses another appearance of Douglass, this time in St. Louis, a now elderly Douglass who is still preaching the rights of Negroes. The next time zone is 1929, when Emily and her own illegitimate daughter Lottie are traveling across the Atlantic to interview Brown on the tenth anniversary of his flight. Emily is now a journalist, and with her photographer daughter Lottie is based in Newfoundland—where ten years earlier they had asked Adcock and Brown to bring that private letter with them to Ireland, a letter in which Emily thanks an Irish family for their long-ago kindness toward her mother Lily.

Now the focus on crossing the Atlantic has been replaced by a focus on the female descendents of Lily, who are Emily, Lottie, and Hannah. In Ireland on their 1929 trip, Emily receives from Brown the letter Lottie gave to him before his flight; he had forgotten to post it. And Lottie, who has joined her mother on the trip as her photographer, now settles in Ireland, for she falls in love and marries the driver her mother had hired to find Brown. Next, we move to 1978, to Lottie’s subsequent life, especially her problems with her son Tomas. Finally, the last chapter, in 2011, also in Ireland, deals with Lottie’s daughter Hannah and the misplaced and still unopened letter.

Overall, this is the story of a family that begins in poverty and ends in poverty. A story that some might suggest mirrors the rise and fall of Ireland’s own economy. But it is a beautiful novel, as I have written. And one major reason that it is beautiful is the author’s style. It is a style of short sentences, frequently without a verb, and of clear limpid images. It is a pleasure to read, often with one image built upon another to create an entire scene.

And those moments beautifully bring to life a variety of scenes: the initial flight across the Atlantic, the battlefront of the Civil War, the hardscrabble life of an ice factory and then a newspaper office. But it also brings to life an emotional content: the sensitivity of Mitchell outside the negotiating rooms, the fragility of Emily as she encounters a man’s world, the aging of Lily and her female progeny, the texture of the Irish countryside and seaside, and the gentility, the warmth of the Irish people.

And beyond that, one marvels at the sweep of this novel, across the Atlantic, across cultures, and across more than a century. It deals with violence and protest, with memory and emotion, with historic figures alive on the page and fictional characters whom they encounter and with whom we identify, and, not least, with insignificant fictional women and the march of real history.

The weaknesses of the book are, first, the Mitchell section—as well as it is done, as understanding as it is of Mitchell’s blend of frustration and perseverance. And, second, it is the choice of the first-person narration in the final section, which is Hannah’s story as she struggles to save the family property on the edge of the sea. The switch to the first person is never explained, and we do not enter deep enough into her character to support it. We grasp her financial concerns, her doubts, and her sense of impending loss, but we do not explore her concern for her own future. The author is not interested in the psychology of soul-searching.

To sum up, while this novel encapsulates a full circle of poverty, it also offers a full circle of resilience. Which on another level is a full circle from faith in one’s future to hope in one’s survival There is even a full circle of violence, from that against an entire race, to that against another religion, to that against a single individual.

The final sentence reads: “We have to admire the world for not ending on us.” This is thought by Hannah as she faces a future that seems bleak but also as she is aware that life goes on. It is a message of modified hope for a novel that has captured the beauty of life as well as its frustration, the satisfactions experienced as well as the struggles, the peace as well as the sense of incompleteness.

This work, in fact, has an ending that is not an ending. It stops, just as a thought stops, as a fate stops, before veering off into a new direction. (March, 2015)

Warburg in Rome, by James Carroll

This is a religious thriller, and a good one, from one of my favorite authors, James Carroll. But this 2014 novel is not the literary work that I had hoped to read. What happened? My theory stems from the fact that of Carroll’s recent works, only one was a novel, and, indeed, a literary one. Whereas, the others were works of history—with the emphasis on Church history and power, the Church’s relations with the Jews, and American military might.

This novel represents a blend of those issues, and I sense that Carroll either thought his subject here did not reach the scale of his previous non-fiction works, or thought it would reach a broader audience as a novel. And he did want/need a broad public to be aware of this slice of Vatican history.

The story he tells is ironic, that the Vatican, with the collaboration of the American army, established a pipeline to help Nazi military officers and government leaders escape to Argentina. They worked together, in history, because both groups feared that Soviet military power would establish atheistic Communism in Europe; and had determined that these escaping Nazis could become a bulwark to help prevent this from happening. While the irony is that the same U.S. government that is allowing the Germans to escape is, in Carroll’s fiction, also helping to fit into the post-war world the Jewish people whom those Nazi leaders persecuted.

And so, in addition to its exposure of Church duplicity at the highest level, this work also raises both refugee issues and moral issues. These include the violent acts of terrorists, by both Germans and Zionist Jews; the guilt of the fictional characters who become involved in the intrigue among the Germans, the Jews, and the Vatican; and the commitment of these various characters to their ideals, in the wake of these revelations.

The basic story of the Vatican pipeline is true, says Carroll. His fictional story to complement it involves five main characters. These are an American government official, David Warburg, a Jew; an ambitious priest, Kevin Deane; a Red Cross worker, Marguerite d’Erasmo; an American military officer, Peter Mates; and an English nun, sister Thomas Aquinas. Some of these collaborate with each other, some work at cross-purposes. Two couples emerge from this intrigue, but they reach different resolutions.

Warburg has been sent by the U.S. government to Rome to aid Jews who have escaped German and Italian internment, and to help them settle in the U.S., Palestine, or other countries. He meets Marguerite, who is helping all refuges in Rome, especially Jews, and Father Deane, who serves Cardinal Spellman, and is as ambitious as Spellman, but who also expresses sympathy for the plight of the Jewish refugees.

The novel’s fictional story concerns the discovery by this idealistic trio of the reality of the pipeline, the involvement of the Vatican in providing the Nazis with the papers to emigrate, and the Americans, such as Mates, looking the other way for their own purposes. Whereupon, complications ensue, for violence intrudes on this “discreet” Vatican scheme, first when retreating German forces murder Jews and then when vengeful Jews seek to advance their cause through terrorist bombings in both Rome and Jerusalem.

It is this violence that challenges the idealistic beliefs of our trio. For one the challenge is to a belief in a vague Jewish faith; for another it is one’s conviction to remain in service to the Church; for another it is the ability to remain an idealist in the face of corruption everywhere; and for another the challenge is to retain one’s vocation in the face of failure and betrayal. And it is here that the novel reaches for the level of literature. If it does not succeed in doing so, it does lend more depth to all of its characters.

As a former priest, Carroll is adept at capturing both the emotions and the consciences of both good priests, like Father Deane, and bad priests. Among the latter is Father Roberto Lehmann, a Franciscan who is the key Vatican contact for the pipeline. Carroll establishes the mood and the thoughts of Deane, both when he is saying mass and when his conscience grasps his involvement at the fringes of the Nazi pipeline. Meanwhile, Carroll explores the rationalizing conscience of Father Lehmann, even as he comes to understand he has been sexually seduced to betray his pipeline friends.

At times, the political maneuvering among the Vatican officials, the Nazi sympathizers, the Jews, and the Americans can become complex and confusing. Indeed, I find such maneuvering often to be confusing in a thriller like this. Which only re-enforces for me that this is a thriller, that the emphasis is not on the characters themselves, as well delineated as they may be. No, it is story that matters here—the maneuvers themselves, and the message that the story carries. Namely, that the Vatican was more than complicit, was deeply involved at the highest level, in a pipeline designed to help Nazi officials escape Allied justice after World War II—the purpose being to use these officials later to combat the advance of Communist Russia.

In passing, I would note that despite the complexity of the plot, each time I picked up this novel I needed little help in recalling the overall situation. This is testimony to Carroll’s skill as a novelist and to the tightness of his structure. But more significant are the moral issues that the novel raises. Is it right to bomb a building, even without killing people? Is it right to assassinate one evil person rather than kill scores of innocent people? Is one culpable when betraying a person in order to reveal evil? Or in betraying one person in order to save another? And how much should one accept/believe in an institution or a vocation which contradicts one’s own beliefs?

Another theme of this novel is love. Both the love of mankind and love among individuals. Both spiritual love and sexual love. Both idealistic love and practical love. Both love of self and love of others. And the diverse resolutions of the human loves here bring home the complexity of love itself.

I do not expect more literary fiction from Carroll, but I will welcome any works that offer further insight into the Church and its spiritual mission in a world of pragmatic human beings. (March, 2015)

The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger

This 1951 novel is the story of a teenager and New York City. Plus his family and his friends. And a few strangers. Holden Caulfield is a precocious kid, a smart-aleck, and if he is also pretentious it is because he is insecure. Here is a brilliant portrait of adolescence, and one can understand why this work is a favorite of anyone under, say, thirty. When one’s own memories of adolescence are so recent.

But as a novel, this work resembles a one-trick pony. It is the story of Holden and his encounter after encounter with fellow students, professors, distant girl friends, two nuns, three tourist women, a prostitute, and finally his young sister Phoebe. And each meeting underscores Holden’s braggadocio, his immaturity, his false modesty, and his desperation to seek out and connect with someone. That is, each meeting with a different person is a variation on a common theme.

Where is this narrative going, I kept asking myself.

Finally, in the very last scene, with sister Phoebe riding the carousel in Central Park, we realize the sense of family that has been the context of all his interactions. He has been contacting all these people in lieu of his family. And each time, as he rationalizes his failure to connect with someone, he desperately seeks out someone else. He continues to make these attempts because he also seeks a connection that he cannot find with the adult world at home.

Holden has been talking about his parents throughout his narrative, as well as about his brothers, one of whom has died of leukemia, and about Phoebe. But he has been afraid to reach out to his family after being expelled from school for not passing his courses. For being thought as stupid. Which he obviously is not.

So why does he encounter failure when he reaches out to others? Perhaps because it is an adult relationship he seeks, but he is afraid of adulthood. One might add that he is afraid of adulthood because he is afraid of death, which has struck one older brother. But he is also afraid of the sex that represents adulthood and that motivates many of his adventures. And so he puts up a wall of cynicism to protect him from that adulthood.

But did Salinger need almost 300 pages to draw this portrait? Yes, these are brilliant pages. Yes, they perfectly capture a smart but troubled youth. Yes, the adolescent tone is remarkably consistent. But technical virtuosity for me goes only so far. Until the very end, this narrative remains on the surface. Once Holden’s shallowness is established, even with all the variations, the portrait goes no deeper.

The title is symbolic of the pleasures of youth, and of saving youth from entering the false world of adulthood. Holden misinterprets the Robert Burns poem, and dreams of children playing in a rye field at the edge of a cliff; and his job is to save these kids from falling off the cliff, meaning into adulthood. He is the catcher in the rye. One critic even suggests that at the end, Phoebe, although she is just a kid, becomes the catcher, because she has persuaded Holden to give up his naive plan to escape the adult world by fleeing out west and living as a deaf mute (so he doesn’t have to talk to anyone).

At one point, incidentally, Holden defends writing that goes off tangent, and introduces a new, disconnected subject. This to me is an indirect defense of his own narrative here, in which Holden not only seeks different characters to relate to but also introduces new subjects in his conversations with them when the talk is not going in the direction he wishes. Skipping about is also, presumably, the way a restless adolescent mind works.

In passing, I would also note that spiritual references hover over this narrative, as it does in many of Salinger’s works. The events here occur in the days leading up to Christmas, and he comments on Jesus and the Radio City Christmas show. Holden also encounters two nuns, who are portrayed sympathetically. And even the frequent “goddam” remarks remind us of the world of religion, along with a youth pretending to be an adult.

The vernacular, indeed, is characteristic of this book’s style. This work, for example, popularized the word “phony,” representing, according to Holden, anything in the adult world. Another pretense of that adult world is using “old” in front of the names of people he meets. Other choice phrases include “shoot the bull,” “chew the fat,” and “get a kick out of that.” All both reverberate with the times, and re-enforce the adolescence of Holden.

To sum up, the more I think about this novel, and the more critics I read, the more I accept that this is a deeper novel than what I thought it was while reading it. More thought went into Holden’s character than I realized, such as his self-protective alienation to avoid what he called being a phony adult. And I can even see this work’s comparison to The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn, because it is narrated by an adolescent and is in the vernacular of the boyhood of its era. But Huckleberry Finn offers us glimpses of the world outside Huck, the social setting in which he lives, while Catcher in the Rye exists entirely within Holden Caulfield himself. It is a portrait of him rather than its era, and it also creates its own style rather than satirizes an earlier literary style.

This work does not prompt me to go back and reread other Salinger work. He is an author for younger readers. Indeed, he seems to have inspired some authors to write similarly about their own youth. But he was writing for another era. His was an era of innocence, an innocence that is captured here, but an innocence that no longer exists, an innocence, indeed, that his book has helped us move beyond. For, in its literature, that innocent world proscribed sex, proscribed profanity, and proscribed rebellion, all of which are abundant here. Yes, those aspects are understated, but Salinger in this work helped to open the literary door to this previously unacknowledged reality. He himself was no phony. (February, 2015)