Talking Location With author Charlotte Rixon – Newcastle
Thriller set in the Vatican
5th October 2016
Conclave by Robert Harris, thriller set in the Vatican.
Conclave is a classic Robert Harris read. It shows why he is such a great and popular writer. As ever with Robert, it is meticulously researched – taking real events and building on what may have happened around them. Conclave is the story of the election of a new Pope, and to write it Robert was given extremely rare access to parts of the Vatican that mere mortals do not normally see. It oozes authenticity in its location.
The story is, of course, a little far-fetched (or is it?). The 118 cardinals gathered in Rome for the conclave are a pretty mixed bunch. A blend of nationalities, cultures, and wings of the Church. The whole Conclave is political in the extreme… Most, if not all, are honest men seeking God’s guidance in their task – but more earthly concerns do often prevail (especially when they move back from their deliberations in the Sistine Chapel to their lodgings in the Casa Santa Marta).
Conclave is told through the eyes of Cardinal Lomeli, the Dean who is the convenor of the Conclave. He is a good man, but troubled in his faith. He has to try and manage the personalities involved. The clear favourites for the position are Cardinal Adeyemni of Lagos (who would be the first black Pope, and who would pick up most of the African vote), Cardinal Bellini of Milan (a progressive in the Church), Cardinal Tremblay of Quebec (who could expect to secure the American vote – both North and South), and Cardinal Tedesco of Venice (an arch conservative). The election goes to eight ballots over three days – with plenty of time for intrigue and plotting in-between, some of it not at all pleasant. Some cardinals get caught out by their duplicity and ambition.
The book moves to a well-worked but surprising denouement. No more for fear of a spoiler…
I saw Robert Harris being interviewed recently. He was asked how he blended the ‘facts’ on which his stories are based with the fiction with which he tells the story. His response was that he researches his subjects (be they Cicero, Dreyfus, or Hitler…) in great detail, and makes absolutely sure that what he writes about could have happened. And the detail is amazing. In Conclave he really gets behind the mechanics of what is going on – from the rituals of the voting to the addition of chemicals to the burning of the ballot papers to give the famous black (for failure) or white (for success) smoke rising from the Sistine Chapel chimney. It all rings completely true.
Conclave is a book very much in the Robert Harris tradition. It is fast paced and exciting – and believable. It will appeal to all those who loved Fatherland, Enigma, Archangel or Pompeii – and hopefully to more besides.
Tony for the TripFiction team