Conclave, by Robert Harris

by Robert A. Parker

On reading the Harris novel, An Officer and a Spy, I suggested his next subject might be a story of the Russian Revolution. But he has denied me twice. He has chosen as his subject for this 2016 novel the election of a new pope. And he has projected the election into the future, rather than as an event of the past.

He writes the story from the viewpoint of Cardinal Lomeli, the Dean of Cardinals, whose role as dean is to run the election. And from the opening pages, when Lomeli learns of the death of a reformist Francis-like pope, I was immediately caught up by the cardinal’s sense of responsibility, his dedication, his integrity, his worthiness. And I remained comfortable with this viewpoint for the entire novel, as Lomeli offers both a human and a spiritual insight regarding each event. Insights so appropriate for a dedicated man of the cloth that I projected that the author was himself raised a Catholic, since he reflected such a complete understanding of this man of faith.

But as Harris himself explained to the Catholic Herald, “I was never baptized. I have always mildly resented this, as I have felt one should be plugged in from birth, just like one is given inoculations.” And adds: “I don’t think this book could have been written by a complete atheist.” Indeed, that he first submerged himself in the Gospels, as well as in Pope John XXIII’s Journal of a Soul, adds to the dedication to and achievement of this novel. That he has so submerged himself into the subconscious of a Roman cardinal that he makes not only him but this portrait of the Church entirely credible. Indeed, even the fear of loneliness on being elected pope rises on these pages.

The initial chapters also drew me into an appreciation of the additional research Harris pursued in order to write this work of fiction. And of the degree of cooperation he received from the Vatican, which he cites in his Acknowledgements. For we are inside these men’s minds and souls, inside the Sistine Chapel as these 118 cardinals cast their votes, and inside the mission of the Catholic Church that the Vatican sustains. Even the repetitive procedures that apply to each ballot, and there will be seven ballots, increases the weight that is given to the burden on these men’s shoulders.

And yet this is also a novel. So new developments must evolve to sustain reader interest. These are built around the fortunes of each candidate, as their electability rises and falls. They do so as a result of certain character revelations, revelations based on sex or bribery, revelations which, however, are not truly original. This is perhaps where this serious novel veers toward the popular side rather than toward the literary side. And it concludes with acts of violence that may have a factual basis in the world of today’s reader; but they reflect more an external force bringing this novel to its climax, rather than any turning point in the lives of these cardinals.

As for the ending itself, it operates on two levels. On the cardinals’ eventual choice of the new pope, I was not surprised. It is somewhat telegraphed. On a second level, we are offered a final twist, which reflects for me too much just that, a final twist. It is like an add-on by Harris, in which he changes one of the characters. One even sees Harris writing it with a smile.

On the cover are the words, “The power of God, the ambition of men.” And the novel certainly reflects this conflict. Ambition drives the actions of up to a half dozen of the cardinals in the conclave. In fact, even those who would deny ambition succumb to it at the end.

The candidates are three Italians: Cardinal Lomeli, the conscientious leader of the election process; Cardinal Bellini, an ambitious reformer; and Cardinal Tedesco, an ambitious archconservative. In addition, there are Cardinal Tremblay, a media-savvy Canadian who is ambitious for his own sake; Cardinal Adeyemi, a charismatic Nigerian conservative; and Cardinal Benitez, an unknown, modest Filipino. And the fortunes of these men will rise and fall as the election proceeds, falling either because of discoveries of their past, or because of their own aggressiveness. One might also note that these changes in fortune occur conveniently between each of the ballots, meaning they are carefully placed by the author to build his suspense. As well as to prompt the next shift in the leading vote-getter.

Unfortunately, however, we witness each candidate’s rise and fall more as representatives of their individual ideology than as fully-fleshed human beings whose private beliefs are probed. Which is why, as we dig further into this novel, the outcome of the voting becomes more pertinent than the fate of these individual candidates. Except, one might say, for the winning candidate. Which, as I said, involves a change more at the instigation of the author than it is of the candidate.

All of this works, however, within the secretive atmosphere that Harris has brought alive onto the page. As a former political reporter himself, as well as a novelist fascinated by the hidden machinations of power (see his Roman era novels), Harris says his initial inspiration for this novel came when he compared the faces on the Vatican balcony—“worldly, cunning, benign”—as the recent pope was announced, to the faces he imagined in Cicero’s senate.

Harris understands how ambition and power function in a complex organization like the Church. Especially when its leaders are brought together to choose one among them to be their chief. He also uses Lomeli to spell out the history and traditions of past elections, as well as the implications for today. Perhaps most powerful of all, he emphasizes the seclusion of these cardinals and the ritual secretiveness that each cardinal accepts. Finally, he balances the institutional and personal needs that confront these men.

Nevertheless, this novel fits more into the thriller category than into the literary category. It is more concerned with the outcome than with any change the outcome brings—either to the Church or to these characters. And yet it is a fine novel, because of its texture of secrecy, its reflection of the Church’s past in its art, its overview of Church politics, its clear understanding of ambition and power, leavened at times by one’s conscience, and finally by the sincere humanity of these cardinals. (May, 2017)

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