Munich, by Robert Harris

From the first page to the last, one reads this 2017 novel as if one is experiencing history. As if the reader is in each scene, watching and eavesdropping as Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Adolph Hitler, along with their respective entourages, meet at Munich in 1938 in their brief and famous effort to avoid a new world war.

We are brought into the scene by two presumably fictional characters, Paul von Hartmann, a minor official in the German Foreign Office, and Hugh Legat, a rising British diplomat who is fluent in German and is a private secretary to Chamberlain. The two diplomats first met as students at Oxford University and have drifted away from each other, but now they meet again because Hartmann, part of an anti-Hitler movement in Germany, has sent a message to the British that he has a document verifying Hitler’s plans to conquer Europe. And so the British send Legat to Munich with Chamberlain with orders to contact Hartmann, for if the British can obtain those plans, they can expose Hitler before he can put them into action.

The novel consists of alternate meetings by each side as both the English and the Germans scheme over four days on the German threat to swallow parts of Czechoslovakia. These meetings will conclude with a joint statement and the famous Chamberlain declaration that his efforts had achieved “peace for our time.” What is remarkable is the suspense that Harris has created here, even when the actual outcome of the Munich meeting is so well known.

The first explanation for this suspense, I believe, is our fascination at learning, step by step, what really happened. We are there at both private meetings in which the German, English, Italian and French leaders meet with their entourages to discuss strategy and deal with their colleagues, and then at a public meeting as the two main leaders confront one another. Such details, along with a vivid description of the Munich environment, including ever-present German crowds in the street, reveal not only the author’s extensive research but also his ability to convert the dry findings of that research into the realistic details of his fictional world.

The second reason for suspense is our concern for the two fictional characters, Legat and Hartmann, given the impact they attempt to have on this historic confrontation. Both face obstacles from their own colleagues, first to being able to meet and, second, being able to join forces to convey Hitler’s specific plans to Chamberlain. In fact, one scene builds to a dramatic meeting with Chamberlain in which the two diplomats confront him. From history, the reader knows that the efforts of these two young men will prove ineffectual, but we read on to learn whether their effort to sabotage the Munich negotiations will be discovered and whether or how they will be punished.

History has judged the Munich mission a major failure based on false Allied hopes and German duplicity. A failure, especially, of Neville Chamberlain. But in this novel, Chamberlain is continually seen in a positive light. His views of Hitler are always forthright, never obsequious. Indeed, he is constantly cheered by German crowds during his public appearances in Munich, and then is later hailed by the English populace and the English press when he returns home. For he has saved both sides from the horrors of war by reluctantly accepting a limited German takeover of Czechslovkia. His rationale is that he has negotiated with Hitler in order to buy the time Britain needs to rebuild its depleted military.

Patrick Anderson sums up Harris’ approach to Chamberlain in his Washington Post review, writing that the novel “offers a painful look at an honorable man, longing for peace, but confronting an adversary who had only conquest in mind and only contempt for Chamberlain’s good intentions. …Chamberlain would be accused of appeasement,” Anderson continues, “but Harris sees a man haunted by hundreds of thousands of English deaths in World War I, barely 20 years earlier, and desperate to buy time.”

John Fund explains the author’s approach to this novel in National Review: “Harris has taken on a herculean task in trying to rehabilitate Chamberlain, and he makes a valiant attempt. In interviews promoting the book, he has said that his ‘slightly rebellious nature’ led him to challenge some sacred tablets about World War II. He said that when he was growing up in post-war Britain, it was rarely mentioned that four-fifths of the war occurred on the Eastern Front, that Stalin had killed far more people than Hitler, and that Britain had ten times the number of planes during the Battle of Britain that it had had at the time of Munich two years earlier. Harris said that these contradictions ‘have really infected my writing career ever since, starting with Fatherland.’”

Given Harris’ past success in recreating history, not only in Fatherland, which depicts a world in which Germany has won World War II, but also in his successful novels set in ancient Rome, one should not be surprised that his “rebellious nature” in evaluating traditional history also prompted him to offer a different take on Chamberlain’s strategy in Munich.

In another interview, author Harris told NPR: “You couldn’t get two figures in history more unalike; and yet, contrary to popular myth, I think it’s Chamberlain that got the better of Hitler at Munich. Hitler did not want to be there. He wanted to be at the head of his army advancing on Prague.” In fact, Harris says that Albert Speer in his memoirs wrote that “ at a dinner party it all came pouring out [of Hitler]. He said the German people have been duped, and by Chamberlain of all people. And even at the end of his life in 1945, Hitler was saying, ‘We should have gone to war in 1938, September 1938 would have been the perfect time.’”

Given the terrible state of the British supply of fighter aircraft in 1938, this certainly has the ring of truth. And the result is that we can thank Robert Harris for another successful novel offering a refreshing view of history. Indeed, I look forward to many more. (July, 2019)

Conclave, by Robert Harris

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)

An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris

This 2013 work is a fascinating novel, and at the same time a brilliant recreation of history. One suspects that Harris felt the general public did not know the details of this famous event, and that its deception and corruption would make an intriguing work of fiction. And I loudly applaud him for this decision. Enough history has been written about the Dreyfus affair. The public, however, does not read history. It reads fiction.

Overall, this is the story of a miscarriage of justice, a plot created at the highest levels of the French army, a plot created to protect the reputation of that army at the expense of an innocent officer, a Jewish officer, in an era of anti-Semitism. And the novel is the story of how this was carried out, how it lasted for a decade, and how it nearly succeeded.

It did not succeed because of one man, the narrator of the novel, Georges Picquart. Picquart’s involvement was central to justice eventually being rendered, even though he acted in collaboration with many others. But a novel needs a central character, and, by making him the narrator as well, Harris has built a convincing case—even as his author’s note warns that “in order to turn history into a novel, I have been obliged to simplify, to cut out some figures entirely, to dramatize, and to invent many personal details.”

What makes this novel so convincing is the detail. We begin with the formal ceremony, in public, denouncing Captain Dreyfus as guilty. Major Picquart is present as a trusted aide of the French plotters, and is promoted to colonel and head of the army’s Statistical Section, a counterintelligence agency, with the assumption that he will be loyal to his superiors.

The Statistical Section has handled the Dreyfus case; and, at first, Picquart assumes Dreyfus’ guilt. But then he learns more and more about the evidence against the captain, and begins having doubts. He reads Dreyfus’ personal letters and his protestations of innocence. Then…a lover gossips that Dreyfus may be innocent, a torn (blue) telegram never sent by the Germans throws suspicion on a man named Esterhazy, and forged handwriting evidence against the true traitor is revealed to be not by Dreyfus but by Esterhazy. It seems he has been selling information to the Germans. Which is what Dreyfus has been convicted of. And so: are there one traitor, or two?

This is the beginning of Picquart’s effort to learn the truth. Who is the traitor? Why has Dreyfus been convicted? How much involved is the hatred of Jews? Is the evidence against Dreyfus sound? If not, who in the army has manipulated the evidence? And why? As Picquart seeks the answers to these questions, as he doubts the evidence against Dreyfus, the novel becomes more and more fascinating.

But this novel of espionage is also history. And is complicated by the era’s anti-Semitism, as well as by an army leadership which fabricates evidence in order to preserve careers and reputations. It is made credible by its portrait of Picquart, an honest and compassionate officer who gradually comes to believe the evidence that Dreyfus is innocent and Esterhazy is guilty, and who then duels with the army and the political establishment to prove his case. The odds, and the army, are stacked against him, as is even his own aide, Major Henry, but he perseveres. And as he endures defeat after defeat, and false evidence after false evidence, the suspense builds.

But unlike Maslin in the Times, I was more intrigued by the slow build-up, by the early “stream of discoveries,” as complicated as were the description of the forgeries, than by the later efforts to curtail Picquart’s allegations and to silence him—even exiling him to Tunisia. The repeated judicial reversals he endures, all under control of the army, do seem inevitable. But then there is a final political reversal—unexpected in the novel’s terms, I think, because Picquart has no role in the public’s growing awareness of the injustice. And the novel is stuck inside his viewpoint.

Louis Begley writes in his Times review that, as a result of Picquart being the narrator, “the focus is necessarily too narrow, failing to take in the historic background.” While I agree that something is lost at the end, as a result, this is outweighed by Colonel Picquart’s early presence. It is his personal involvement that gets the reader involved. That lends reality to the slow accumulation of details. Meaning Harris has sacrificed history for the sake of making the events come alive.

On picking up this novel, I thought the title referred to Dreyfus, who was an officer and was accused of being a spy. But now I think the word Officer refers to Picquart, who is the novel’s hero, and the word Spy refers, by using the “a,” to both the accused and the actual spy. This stems from my conviction that Harris made the right choice in telling this story through the eyes of Picquart. For just as he is slowly convinced by the compilation of evidence—and through him so is the reader—so does the reader understand why he is ready to sacrifice his career in the interest of justice.

The characterization of Picquart himself, however, is less effective. Despite his love affairs with the married Pauline and others, he does not come across as more than two-dimensional. He and Harris are too focused on the Dreyfus affair to allow significant personal complications to enter. And the other characterizations, of the army leadership, are even one-dimensional. They exist mainly as pro-Dreyfus, very few, or anti-Dreyfus. The overall portrayal is of corrupt army leadership, but individual motives are not evaluated. No one’s conscience is explored. Nor are any doubts that Picquart may have in taking a stand that may mean the sacrifice of his career.

To sum up, this is another case of Harris making the past come alive, of placing the reader in another era by having him identify with a real participant of that era. And by confronting the reader with that character’s daily decisions. The secret to making history come alive in fiction is focusing with a close-up lens rather than a panoramic lens. The panoramic lens is for the historian. I would hope that Harris might take this approach again—such as with the origins of the Russian Revolution. (November, 2016)


The Fear Index, by Robert Harris

This 2011 work is a professionally written thriller about the world of finance. It speculates about what can happen when computers take over the stock market: how world finances might well run out of control. It is intended as a warning, and the possible reality is supported by the reference to a variety of financial experts listed in the Acknowledgements at the start of the novel.

This is not a serious novel, unlike much of Harris’ work. It is a thriller with a purpose. Yet it is a professional thriller, opening with a dramatic scene in which Alex Hoffmann, a wealthy computer genius, senses an intruder in his Geneva mansion at night. And it closes with another highly dramatic scene in which Alex seeks to escape a fire he has just set in order to save the world’s financial systems.

Like many a serious thriller, this work also presents a policeman, Leclerc, who works at cross-purposes to Alex. He also presents a contrast to the intelligent, high-strung computer genius that is Alex; for, near retirement himself, Leclerc moves slowly and deliberately as he tracks down suspects. Alex is not exactly a suspect, however, just one who is acting suspiciously. Indeed, there is no real villain in this novel, unless it is a computer algorithm Alex has created that threatens to run out of control.

The other main characters include Gabrielle, who loves but fails to understand her genius husband; and a mysterious Hugo Quarry, Alex’s partner who recruits the wealthy men who back Alex’s hedge fund, Hoffmann Investment Technologies. This firm has developed the algorithm that enables its computer to adapt to surrounding events and react to down markets faster than any human can. That is, create its own artificial intelligence that can take advantage of and influence the reality around it.

There is a maguffin in this work, a mysterious figure who has somehow taken over Alex’s computers, and is sending messages in his name that he claims he never sent. Alex says this figure is attempting to drive him mad, which is believable since he himself has been presented as a kind of mad scientist. This force, or figure, has the potential to be a villain, but he is more a maguffin, forcing the reader to turn the pages to learn who he is and why he is distorting Alex’s world. I call him a maguffin because the novel ends without the reader actually learning who he is. Is he actually Alex himself, or someone who has simply taken over his cyber world. And why? Unless I missed an explanation at the end, there is none, and this is the one disappointment of the novel.

Regarding the complexity of the novel’s financial world, it is sufficiently clear at the start regarding hedge funds and Alex’s motive in setting up his own. That is, we learn that a hedge fund bets on both sides of a stock’s fate, thus decreasing its money at risk, but clearing millions if it guesses right and bets more on the right side. But while the basic principle is clear, the algorithm that reacts to the financial world around it is not, especially during the climactic rampage when the markets across the globe suddenly run out of control.

The message of this novel concerns the greed in our financial system, and the fear of losing control over the technology that serves that greed—the Fear Index being a Wall Street tool that measures violent swings in the market. And then this novel explores how that fear is confounded when control actually is lost. But this psychological overlay, this attempt to give the novel depth, even including references to Darwin and his theories of evolution, did not work for me. Not least because I was so interested in Alex’s situation and Alex’s fate that I did not need it.

It is interesting how Harris in his various novels switches back and forth from historic worlds to the current world and its issues. But while his work is fascinating in the contemporary world, he is more successful in literary terms in the historic world. Perhaps because he can give depth to actual history through interpretation, whereas today’s scene must be regarded more speculatively. (January, 2016)

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)