Last year I went to Rome for the first time. It’s hard to write about the experience – the art, the sights, the culture – without lapsing into cliché, but I became particularly intrigued by the institution of the Vatican.
We spent one wonderful day in the Vatican Museums, gorging on some of the world’s greatest art (and not one work by a woman). As someone who had a notionally Catholic upbringing – I wouldn’t go so far as to say lapsed as I was never convinced to begin with – I felt keenly the contradiction between enjoying all these treasures and thinking that the wealth that purchased them should never have been appropriated from my ancestors in the first place.
On another day we visited Saint Peter’s Basilica and, as we were staying nearby, we often found ourselves wandering round the Piazza and the surrounding streets in the evening. All these experiences, and my reading before we went, left me with a jumble of conflicting images and a fascination with this strange world: the nuns who are excluded from influence but perform so many vital tasks and whose presence is even felt in the galleries (they get to repair Raphael’s tapestries so I guess we did see some women’s art after all); the priests from around the world offering confession in Italian and English, Polish and Tamil; the hot priests calendar; the shops selling lavish ecclesiastical robes; the high-tech efficiency of the tourist operation.
So I’ve had my eye on Robert Harris’ Conclave for a while, with its promise to delve into the mysteries of this strange world. And I was not disappointed.
The conclave of the title takes place after the death of a fictional Pope, but one with some resemblance to Pope Francis. We don’t learn too much about him at the beginning, except that he is a reformer. The story is narrated by Cardinal Lomeli, one of the Pope’s closest associates, who is tasked with the organisation of the conclave, just as he is struggling with a crisis of faith.
As the cardinals assemble from around the world to choose his successor, we are introduced to the favourites to succeed the Pope and to their supporters and factions. The deceased Pope also plays a significant role, even after death. His influence, his love, and the consequences of his actions are felt acutely by Lomeli and the others who were close to him and they learn that he made some surprising decisions in his final days.
You might question whether there is much drama to be had in the deliberations of a group of men over 60, largely confined in one place. However Harris does it brilliantly. He weaves together all the issues confronting the church, and the contrasts between the cardinals – in matters of faith, temperament, politics and geography. Lomeli’s role means he has to liaise with the outside world during their supposed confinement and his assistants prove to be able co-conspirators (and of course there are nuns again, providing the catering).
There is a lot of detail of the traditions of the conclave, capturing both the splendour and the banality of the life of the Vatican. There are a few Father Ted moments, such as when the cardinals make their way to their accommodation for the conclave, dressed in their full regalia, pulling their wheelie suitcases behind them.
Harris asks interesting questions about the nature of spirituality and its relationship to ritual. There are moments when the cardinals may be moved by the voice of God, or it may just be that they imagine him saying what they want to hear. The reader is left to make up their own mind.
I spent some time thinking about the way the conclave, and the novel, end. I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not. But then an ending that makes you think, and question, is perhaps the best kind. I found this a fascinating insight into the strange world of Vatican politics and a great political thriller.
Want to know more? I enjoyed this interview with Robert Harris on the Kobo Writing Life podcast