‘No sane man could possibly want the papacy’ : Listening for the still, small voice
Robert Harris’ prior existence as a political journalist always informs his writing, bringing specific skills to his novels: being concise, not overwriting, clearly giving information and opening out moral arguments in ways which are far from dry and academic; he is an excellent communicator. He is also a creative and imaginative writer, able to imagine into character and create living breathing individuals, with flesh on their bones, not merely ciphers standing for particular viewpoints. He understands the dramatic drive for narrative, and necessity for the unexpected, without sacrificing everything else for narrative drama.
This particular book, based as it is around the election of a new Pope, might seem irrelevant, peculiar, or dull, depending on the reader’s sense of what drama is, and what their view of religious organisations might be. After all, 118 elderly men, the second tier of seniority in the Catholic church, gathered, from all over the world, to elect one of their number as the Supreme Head of their worldwide organisation, where is the drama in that? Where (some might argue) is its importance or relevance?
For the however-long-it-takes for one of them to get the requisite two-thirds majority winning Pope vote, the cardinals have to remain sequestered from the world, without either communicating with it, or receiving communications from it. And what makes it different from any other elite gathering where an election to a position of power is being sought, is that (in theory at least) the cloistered, reflective series of arcane rituals, the periods of silence, the absence of computers, phones, reading material other than sacred texts, are all designed to help each of them listen for the still, small voice of God to help them make the best choice for their Church itself, their flock, their faith, and the needs of the world.
This is highly dramatic stuff – and it plays right into Harris’ strengths and interests as a writer – many of his books have examined institutions and individuals in positions of power, and the kinds of conflicts and corruptions the powerful may experience, and also, how power might be used responsibly.
The election of a Pope ought, in theory, to come about through the cardinals seeking to know the will of God, and to lay aside ego – but cardinals are human, and like all of us, prone to the variety of human weaknesses and flaws. Harris neither hagiographises nor demonises. Amongst the 118 are those who are consciously striving for virtue – as expected – but there are also those who are rather more consciously surrendered to the worst failings of the power-corrupts mindset. The bulk of his cast of characters though are curate’s (or in this case, cardinal’s) eggs – good in parts, and wanting to be better than they are. Harris acknowledges the seriousness of abuses which some of the clergy indulged in, and others covered up, but he does not make the mistake of pinning vice or collusion on one and all.
Conclave explores the schisms and conflicts in the Church – traditionalists versus modernisers, liberalism, thinking around all the issues arising from sexuality, the role of women in the church, and how the Church positions itself in terms of politics of the left or of the right, in the world at large. Always a consummate political thriller novelist he resides issues within rounded individual psychology. Character is the driver and container for everything, and the individuals who will carry and express particular ideological positions are never just mouthpieces for the expressing of ‘isms’.
The central character in Conclave is a very reliable (third-person) narrator, extremely sympathetically drawn. Cardinal Lomeli is the Dean of the College of Cardinals, the one who must oversee and organise the election. He is a wonderful, ‘doubting Thomas’ character, seriously wrestling at times with his faith and with his human flaws, rigorously self-examining. He is also, by virtue of his role in this election, and his particular character, the one who must investigate the various things-which-are-not-quite-right events. A holy detective and a holy therapist-from-within-the-confessional!
This was shaping up, for two-thirds of the twisty, thrillery, fascinatingly informative journey to be a magnificently 5 star read, with tensions mounting as the various front-runners for the Papacy gained or slipped back from their positions in that race. Around the 200 page mark, Harris released a little clue to indicate a possible further twist. And I must confess this had me catching my breath and muttering ‘ Oh no…….I really hope this doesn’t mean……..’
And unfortunately it did. And that big twist felt a contrivance and I’m sorry Harris did it. There were actually a couple of ‘let’s clash some major issues of the day into this book’ which did not really seem seamless and organic to me, so my overall assessment is 4 star,
A fabulous ride for nearly 200 pages, coming down from the sunlit reading horizons to something a bit less inspired. But still recommended
I received this as a review copy from the publisher, Hutchinson
And thanks to blogbud FictionFan, who encouraged me in the penning of an appealing begging letter to Hutchinson. Read her excellent review here