[I decided to read this novel in three sections. At the time of writing about each section, I didn’t know what would happen in the rest of the novel.]
29 October 2017
As usual when reading a Robert Harris novel, I feel I’m in safe hands. It doesn’t always happen, and sometimes the thriller elements are signalled a little too clearly, but this time I’m fine with it. The Pope has died suddenly, and we’re entirely in the consciousness, given to us in the third person so there’s to be no messing about, of the ‘Dean of cardinals’ in charge of supervising the election of a replacement. This is usually how Robert Harris does it, as a thoughtful, but all too human male character has a lot to deal with and feels the pressure. Cardinal Lomeli, 75 years old and, in recent months, feeling more doubts than he has ever felt before, is someone we can all identify with. Harris, as ever, presents us with a capable ‘manager’ – Lomeli’s word – working within a completely plausible mise-en-scene.
There are a lot of old and middle-aged men in this world – more than once, Harris has drawn our attention that a 60-year-old cardinal is the youngest person in the room – and there are the cabals and rivalries that you get wherever men of any age get together. Add to that the fact that they are locked inside a traditional, ultra-hierarchical power structure, and the resulting whispered conversations and jockeying for position are only to be expected. They help us believe, whether it is accurate or not, that the Vatican is probably like this.
We’ve encountered a lot of names in these first 100 pages or so. After a chapter or two they are impossible to keep track of, and we are mostly left with an impression of different blocs from European countries or from other continents. But that’s fine. We’re pretty familiar with the main players now, notably the contenders in the series of ballots that the voting process consists of. There’s the ultra-conservative Tedesco, wanting to see a return not only to the way things were before the Francis-like pope who has just died but to before the reforms of the 1960s. There’s the charismatic Adeyemi, traditionalist in only the way that Africans can be, very popular in his own continent, and complacent in his certainties. There’s Bellini, another Italian – there are a lot of Italians, obviously – more liberal but giving the impression that he doesn’t feel worthy of the massive responsibility. (I can’t remember who points out that it’s men like him that the Church needs, not the ambitious ones.) And there’s the Canadian Tremblay, carefully coiffed and with the unnaturally white teeth of a TV star.
Like Bellini, Lomeli doubts his own abilities, worrying that the responsibility of managing this election might be beyond him. He has no appetite for the meals served once the cardinals are gathered into their enclosed world, to be kept incommunicado until the white smoke can be offered up, and finds it hard to sleep. So, some time before the chapter that explicitly raises it as a possibility, I was wondering whether Lomeli himself might be the chosen one. He doesn’t dream of it, denies (when asked in Chapter 6) that he has even fantasised that he might one day enter the Conclave a cardinal and leave as a pope. But, while delivering the sermon which is his duty as presiding cardinal, he discards the speech he has written and makes a plea for a return to basic principles. He feels good about it – until, afterwards, it is pointed out to him that it is being interpreted by some as a statement of intent. Of those who don’t think he’s seeking nomination himself, most believe he is coming down on the side of Bellini – even though he thought he was being as neutral as he possibly could. He even begins to wonder whether he properly knows his own motives. He felt a bigger rush of faith during the sermon than he has for years – perhaps he really does have a divine role to fulfil?
We’ll see. But, meanwhile, a number of those thriller elements have made an appearance. First, the death of the old pope was not at all expected. We know that almost from the start… but not whether his apparent reluctance to speak frankly to Lomeli in the last months of his life is just a coincidence. Or whether the Polish archbishop who is part of the Vatican administration is simply raving when he tells Lomeli, just before all communication is closed down, that the pope demanded the resignation of one of the contenders in a meeting with him on the very evening of his death. This whistleblower tells Lomeli he had been making up his mind whether or not to say anything until he found it impossible to remain silent. The man involved is Tremblay, and when Lomeli asks him about it in private some time later, Tremblay is totally dismissive of the idea. But, apparently, there is a certain monsignor who also knows about it, and Lomeli is able to ask a trusted colleague helping to supervise the vote, not a cardinal, to sound him out. It’s a big ask, but what else can he do?
Are any or all of these simply red herrings? Is Lomeli’s possible nomination as a successor more, or less, than an interesting take on the idea of a protagonist whose inner psychology can’t be reliably assessed, even by himself? Or is it another red herring thrown into the mix, along with the new cardinal, created ‘in pectore’ by the pope not long before his death, who has arrived unannounced? He seems to have impeccable credentials of selfless missionary service in some of the worst places on earth – it’s just like the old pope to promote a man like him – but almost nobody knew of the appointment, and nobody present has met him before his arrival.
All we can be pretty sure of, I think, is that Lomeli himself had no part in the death of the previous pope. Beyond that, in this locked-room mystery, almost anybody might be involved.
Yes, it’s a thriller – but Robert Harris also takes the reader to some interesting places in his exploration of religion and faith. Lomeli is becoming an ever more sympathetic character, trying hard to do the right thing. But sometimes what the right thing might be seems almost impossible to judge. Like when Harris introduces the most outlandish thriller element of these middle chapters – the sound of a woman’s voice in the room next to his in the middle of the night. Guess which African candidate for the papal throne has that room…. The walls are thin, and Lomeli makes a loud enough sound to alert Adeyemi and the mystery woman to the fact that they can be overheard. Then he waits. And they wait – until she leaves, giving Lomeli just enough time to get to the door and see a woman in a nun’s uniform retreating down the corridor.
What to do? He decides, thinking it can’t actually be the right choice, to say nothing. And next morning – it will be the third day of voting, and the African has been pulling ahead in the ballots until now – Adeyemi also says nothing. But he does approach Lomeli, and it’s clear he knows that he knows. He even seems to suggest that if he is the next pope, there’ll be a top job for Lomeli in the new administration. What to do? Lomeli, despite his own sense of doubt, seems actually to have the most unwavering faith of anybody. He has been unimpressed by Adeyemi’s apparent complacency, for instance when he eats with his cronies rather than seeking guidance from God through private prayer after he has just done so well in the ballot. He has been shocked to the core by the sound of a woman’s voice in Adeyemi’s room, despite knowing that all the nuns are at least 50. He wants to give Adeyemi the benefit of the doubt: perhaps she has sought spiritual guidance from this most celebrated cleric….
But he doesn’t have to stew for long, because thriller writers need things to happen. In the refectory, where it’s self-service for a particular meal, there’s the sound of a tray crashing near Adeyemi’s table. And… it’s time for the next big revelation. By a remarkable coincidence – which turns out not to be a coincidence at all – one of the servant nuns has only recently left Nigeria, Adeyemi’s home country. And, when she won’t explain what led her to drop the tray, Lomeli pulls the oldest trick in the Catholic priest’s book. He offers to hear her confession. And we don’t have to wait long to find out that when she was fourteen years old…. She had to give away her son for adoption, and she’s had a cloistered life of thankless service. Later, when confronted by this truth – which isn’t common knowledge amongst the cardinals yet, but rumours have cut his votes to a handful – Adeyemi tries to pretend that it’s ok. We were young, he tells Lomeli, nobody is without sin. Lomeli reminds him that he was 30 at the time – and tells him his life in the Church is over. Well, maybe. Adeyemi seems as confident as ever soon after, despite having no chance of becoming pope now.
There have been five ballots in these chapters. Lomeli, as we guessed he would, gets a handful of votes in the first one. This development seems to have split the liberal cardinals, so Bellini – who had been the favourite – only comes third behind the two most conservative. Soon, it’s the pro-Italian vote that’s split, so Tedesco falls behind Adeyemi. But the rumours about the African mean that after five ballots – it hasn’t gone so far for years – there has been no decision. But the carefully manicured Tremblay seems to be the only hope for the liberals. Or Lomeli himself – still trailing by a long way, but ahead of Adeyemi – because Bellini is pulling out of the race. The previous pope, according to some insider gossip Lomeli has just heard, had considered him too neurotic anyway.
So, what’s going on? The previous pope had been behaving slightly oddly in the last few weeks of his life – Lomeli hadn’t been the only one to notice – as shown by the extraordinary promotion of Benitez, the new cardinal. Benitez seems to be as sincere in his faith as Lomeli, but seems slightly evasive about the issue of his health. Lomeli isn’t supposed to know that Benitez had wanted to stand down as archbishop of some godforsaken place on the grounds of ill-health, and he has to backtrack when Benitez seems puzzled that he should ask how he is. He tells Lomeli that he has voted for him in every ballot, and Lomeli asks him to stop – and to ask anybody else he thinks might be voting for him to stop too. Fine… but did the previous pope have some plan that Lomeli can’t even guess at? And who on earth planned the jetting in, against her will, of the only person in the world who could ruin the chances of the only ultra-conservative with any chance of winning?
Lomeli, being the good and faithful servant of God that he is, wonders if there’s some divine plan behind all this. His own share of the ballot, while still a small fraction of the front-runners, has increased slightly almost every time. And what about Tremblay, the new favourite to win now that Adeyemi is apparently out of it? The monsignor who had heard about the former pope’s intention to sack him (which he told Tremblay on the evening before his death) isn’t talking, but he isn’t denying the story either. And the same man knows about a report on Tremblay that Lomeli has learnt of, withdrawn by the pope before his death, that might still be in existence. What would Lomeli (and Robert Harris, for that matter) do without Vatican gossip, as personified by his friend O’Malley, the archbishop who oversees the voting? O’Malley seems to be able to find out absolutely everything – except, of course, he can’t really. But he feeds Lomeli, and us, with more than enough morsels to keep us reading.
One last thing, and it’s to do with that running theme of Lomeli’s apparent doubts. Harris has occasionally been feeding in little details of just how sincerely committed to his faith Lomeli is, as when we really believe his shock when Adeyemi spends time surrounded by his fans after pulling ahead, rather than seeking private communion with God. We’ve even been privy to the routine bedtime discipline that has always enabled Lomeli not only to abstain from any form of sexual gratification, but persuades him that he has been a stronger man because of it. Now – and it’s possible to see this as another stage in this author’s campaign to make Lomeli seem the best possible candidate for the papacy – Harris has Benitez talking urgently to him about why he has voted for him. Lomeli tells him that all he is trying to do is make sure the best possible pope gets elected, and Benitez suggests that it isn’t God that Lomeli doubts, but the workings of the Church. Lomeli’s impromptu sermon early on about how they need to return to first principles is what clinched it for the sincerely devout Benitez. There is no better man for the job than Lomeli himself.
Of course, there are a hundred pages still to go, and… and what? Is the possibility of Lomeli’s election another red herring? Might something dreadful happen to him, leaving either the nakedly ambitious Tremblay or the appalling Tedesco in charge? The clever thing is, Harris has got us thinking like Lomeli. We don’t want either of the front-runners to win, and will be mortified if it happens.
Chapters 13-19 – to the end
It doesn’t happen. Neither of the front-runners is elected… but what does happen is a sequence of unexpected developments, culminating in some highly implausible ones in the final few pages. I regretted Robert Harris’s decision to go down this particular route, especially in the final chapter – but set up long before that. (It’s happened before for me in his novels. Enigma is highly engaging until an implausible subplot reminds us we’re reading a thriller. Ghost, not his greatest novel, is made even less believable when we get to the revelations near the end. And don’t get me started on The Fear Index.) Each new element seems more lurid than the last, so that by the end it’s almost like a Dan Brown novel. Almost, but with one big difference. Lomeli is one of the best-drawn characters I can think of in any Robert Harris novel, and his journey from doubt to certainty, and to a readiness for his own elevation if it comes, is really well handled.
But those sensational plot developments. The former pope’s files, secreted in the bed-posts of his hideous four-poster bed. Amongst those files, the document revealing Tremblay’s bribery of some of the other cardinals in order to buy votes – and Lomeli’s decision, with the collusion of his new ally, the formidable Sister Agnes, to photocopy it for every single one of the cardinals. A terrorist bomb at the very moment when, against all his own instincts, Lomeli posts a ballot-paper on which he has written his own name. The shock majority achieved by Benitez, after Lomeli had shown himself to be the most capable – and most sincere in his faith – of them all. And the final double sensation: not only the revelation – after Lomeli (and this reader) had entirely missed the blatant clues earlier – that Benitez, whose gender identity is male, was born a girl… but also Lomeli’s decision not to reveal the truth. (The clues are, mainly, that Benitez hasn’t used the razor he had been given, and didn’t attend the clinic in Geneva for the mysterious appointment the pope arranged for him.) In this most reactionary of male worlds, the first female pope is chosen.
Fine, and it is presented, through Lomeli’s now secure faith in divine wisdom, as the way things were meant to be. But for a long time – from well before the half-way point, in fact – the supreme being calling the shots in this town is an omniscient and highly manipulative author. He makes Thomas Hardy look like an amateur. Perhaps I was setting up unrealistic expectations of this novel. But that’s not fair. Had it not been for those sensational twists in the final half-dozen or so pages – the preposterous election of the unknown candidate, the revelations of his problematic gender identity, and Lomeli’s decision to keep it a secret – it’s an engaging exploration not only of a troubled soul’s return to faith, but of his recognition of his own capabilities. Lomeli, by time of the final ballot, would have been a worthy winner.
But Harris’s presentation of Benitez’s impossibly meteoric rise as a slow burn, and the presence of so many red herrings (especially the two charismatic candidates, revealed to have feet of clay by a couple of highly convenient revelations) makes it clear that the final reveal was planned from the very beginning. The irony of the ending – the election of a pope born as a woman, and who has spent his life working with women – might well have been the one element that Harris had in mind from the start. Everything else, including the brilliantly handled development of Lomeli’s character, is a deliberate distraction.
Is Harris a better writer than he knows? Or am I being a snob? Both, perhaps. He was an excellent journalist before becoming a novelist – I can remember reading Gotcha!, his 1983 critique of the British media’s presentation of the Falklands war, nearly ten years before Fatherland, his first novel – and… and what? A novel like the one he based on the Dreyfus Affair, An Officer and a Spy, shows his strengths to the full. For me, part of its success is owing to the fact that the plot developments, however much Harris might have tweaked the historical facts for dramatic effect, can never veer off into fantasy. The reader never gets the uncomfortable impression that Harris has made life too easy for himself.
So I hate Conclave, yes? Not at all. I’ll remember Lomeli, and I’ll remember what a page-turner this novel is. But maybe Harris ought to trust the reader more. There doesn’t always have to be a twist – or, perhaps, Harris should change the kind of twist he is presenting. The change Lomeli goes through, from doubting back-room manager with low self-esteem to a man who rightly believes he has shown himself to be a worthy pope, would have been more than enough for me.