Conclave by Robert Harris (2016)

‘No emotion, Ray,’ warned Lomeli. ‘We need to think very clearly.’ (p.330)

The Pope dies in the middle of the night. Heart attack, according to the Vatican doctors. The Dean of the College of Cardinals, Jacopo Baldassare Lomeli, Cardinal-Bishop of Ostia, is woken in the early hours to come see the body and set in train the host of formal procedures prompted by the death.

Immediately we are thrown into the midst of the procedural and political complexities of the Holy City, and quickly ushered into a melee of bustling cardinals and archbishops, and to the monsignors and priests, secretaries, nuns and security men, who staff and run the Vatican.

It turns out that we are going to see the entire story from Lomeli’s point of view. The text is not a first-person narrative, it is a third-person narrative, but it follows Lomeli very closely and continually eavesdrops on his thoughts and feelings as the story unfolds.

This is because, as Dean of the College of Cardinals, it falls to Lomeli to make all the practical arrangements for the conclave which must now be called to elect a new pope – to invite the cardinals to Rome, to organise their accommodation, to supervise the transformation of the Sistine Chapel into a voting chamber, the whole thing. Thus Lomeli is the perfect character to accompany through all these arcane mysteries and also the man best placed to confront and unravel the knotty problems which the conclave, in the event, throws up…

Harris skips over the state funeral of the dead pope, which is irrelevant to his purpose, in order to jump to the moment three weeks later when the conclave of all the cardinals foregathers to elect the next pope. One hundred and seventeen cardinals are called from all over the world to the conclave. The successful candidate must gain two thirds of the votes i.e. 79. If the classic thriller is a question of Whodunnit, Conclave is a Whowillgetit: who will be the next pope?

Factual research and conclave procedure

In fact there are more than 117 cardinals in the world but, back in 1970, Pope Paul VI introduced an age limit: no cardinal over the age of eighty can vote. The procedure was further amended by Pope John Paul II in 1996. Thus only 117 are eligible.

Harris is a former investigative journalist, and the book is heavily loaded with factual information, from an intimate description of the interior of the Sistine Chapel as it is prepared for the Conclave of Cardinals, to a detailed description of the hostel on the south side of the Vatican, the Casa Santa Marta, where the cardinals all stay, with all kinds of scattered insights into the roles of the serving nuns or security police, and so on. Building up an in-depth and persuasive picture of how the place runs.

I was particularly fascinated by his description of the actual process of voting, which is surprisingly straightforward: each of the cardinals has a sheet of paper placed in front of their seat at the benches lined up in the Sistine Chapel and, after some preliminary prayer, they simply write down the surname of the cardinal they’re voting for in big block capitals then fold the piece of paper in half.

Then, one by one, they process up to the altar of the chapel where tellers are waiting, say a short formal prayer, place the folded paper on a chalice and tip the chalice up so the paper falls into an urn, while a secretary counts off their name. When all 117 have voted, the pieces of paper are then counted by one teller, another teller unfolds each one and reads out the name, handing the paper to an assistant who skewers it on a big needle attached to a red thread, so there can be no accidental double counting.

When all 117 have been read out and the votes totted up, the teller announces them, then the pieces of paper on thread are bundled into an oven and burnt.

There is another oven next to it (both being makeshift installations inside the famous chapel) beside which are two piles ‘cartridges’ filled with a chemical mix. After the count, an assistant places one or other of these cartridges into the second oven and ignites it. One produces a billow of black smoke, indicating that a pope has not been elected, the other produces white smoke, indicating that a pope has been elected.

I thought there might be speeches or presentations from the leading candidates but no: they all just vote and the results are read out. Then they traipse back to the Casa Santa Marta where lunch is served amid a hum of gossip and intrigue. And then they traipse back to the Sistine Chapel (or pack into the cheesy little white minibuses which are laid on to take them the half mile or so round the back of St Peter’s, in case it’s raining), troop into the chapel, take their places at the makeshift benches, listen to another prayer, then one by one write out their preferred candidate, walk up to the tellers table, tip their voting slip into the urn, and so on.

Generally, it only takes four or five ballots for a winner to gain the necessary two-thirds majority. In 1978 it took eight ballots to elect Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, Archbishop of Kraków, as Pope John Paul II. The rules have changed several times in recent decades but the current rule is that, if the first ballot gives no clear result, there follow four ballots a day, two in the morning, two in the afternoon. Wikipedia gives the full, current procedure:

In Harris’s novel, the process is given a sense of urgency and suspense because Cardinal Lomeli gets unofficial bulletins from the reliable Monsignor O’Malley, ‘Secretary of the College of Cardinals’, about the press speculation going on outside the Vatican, and in reply gives generalised advice for O’Malley to pass on to the Vatican press office.

The set-up

Even as Lomeli is called to the bedside of the dead pope on that fateful evening, he realises that the two or three other cardinals in attendance are already beginning to assert their authority and – gently but firmly – compete for the vacant position.

By the time we’ve jumped forward three weeks to the start of the conclave, the competition is overt and jostling for position among the three or four main contenders has become open. There is worldwide attention – as many as a billion and a quarter Catholics are waiting on the result, as well as every media organisation on the planet.

(The three week delay is to give time for every cardinal around the world to sort out their affairs, and fly to Rome, to get settled in at the Casa Santa Marta, and prepare physically and spiritually for the conclave.)

The media and the cardinals themselves acknowledge the leading candidates, representing the various wings of the church. Most obviously there is a liberal, Secretary of State Aldo Bellini, and a man-of-the-people conservative, the Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Tedesco.

But there is also the smooth-talking, silver-haired operator, the Canadian Chamberlain of the Holy See, Joseph Tremblay, plus a number of ‘outsiders’, including the African cardinal, Joshua Adeyemi from Nigeria who, if elected, would obviously be the first black Pope.

Revelations

But just as the conclave is about to begin, just as the last of the cardinals arrives at the gate of the Vatican, and the last of the non-essential staff leave in order to ensure there are no distractions and no communication with the outside world (all phones and laptops must be handed over), Lomeli is thrown into turmoil by two revelations:

1. The Polish Woźniak, Prefect of the Papal Household, makes a fearful confession to Lomeli: on the very afternoon of his death the former Pope had summoned smooth Cardinal Tremblay and dismissed him from all his offices i.e. sacked him. Why? Woźniak doesn’t know.

2. Lomeli is still reeling from this revelation when he is summoned back to the gates and told that there is an unexpected cardinal there, one who is not on the official list. How can this possibly be the case? It turns out that Vincent Benítez, Archbishop of Baghdad, was made a cardinal by the dead Pope in his last few weeks, by a process known as in pectore, in his heart’, meaning the Pope didn’t tell anyone else.

This is pretty irregular but not unknown. Pope John Paul II had also created a cardinal in pectore, it was widely thought because the new cardinal was dispatched to work in China, where he had to conceal his identity from the authorities.

In the event the other cardinals take this discovery in their stride, welcoming cardinal Benítez during the first group meal, and he turns out to be a slender, quiet, but popular figure.

The plot

Having set the scene the book then rattles along at a steady pace, mixing factual background about this or that aspect of the voting, with acute insights into Lomeli’s own personal doubts and hesitancies – after the votes and communal meals we follow him back to his spartan quarters where he often prays for guidance, and the reader shares these moments of vulnerability, indeed all his moods – but the driver of the book is the well-calibrated description of the Race To Be Pope.

And, because it is a thriller, you won’t be surprised to learn that there is a steady stream of further revelations which shock and horrify Lomeli, who then has the agonising responsibility of whether to share them with the rest of the conclave. And face the accusation that when he does, he is only doing so in order to sabotage his opponents and place himself in pole position.

And although we are privy to all his thoughts – Lomeli repeatedly tells all the other cardinals, and himself, that he does not want to become pope, he saw what it did to the previous incumbents – nonetheless, as scandal engulfs not one but two of the leading candidates, in each consecutive ballot the vote for him increase, and the reader wonders whether he will, despite all his protestations, end up being elected. Whether, in fact, the man whose inner doubts and worries we have been party to, will turn out to be the next Pope.

But quite apart from his place inside the story, Lomeli plays a far more important function as our eyes and ears into what is going on, providing appropriate explanation whenever needed – and for his pondering over the meaning of the hints and implications which drive the plot.

In fact, slowly and inexorably Lomeli, who is supposed to be a frail 75-year-old Italian cardinal, turns into Hercule Poirot, a slow-moving, thoughtful but acute observer of other people, who puts together various pieces of evidence to piece together the mysteries hanging over the conclave.

Spoilers

Two more revelations dominate the main body of the story.

1. it emerges that the African cardinal, Adeyemi, thirty years earlier had had a brief affair with a very young novice and got her pregnant. Now she has turned up, assigned among the nuns who silently and reverently prepare and serve the cardinals’ meals between voting sessions. This middle-aged nun confronts Adeyemi in the canteen in front of all the other cardinals during dinner, and the resulting scandal ends his promising candidature.

But Lomeli is prompted to ask who arranged for this African nun to be transferred at short notice from Nigeria to Rome. And a trail of clues eventually leads him to a further revelation. When Woźniak told him about the former Pope dismissing Tremblay, there was mention of a report into his alleged misdeeds. Where can this report be? Probably among the dead Pope’s belongings. In his apartment. Which is sealed up with plastic ribbon and papal seals.

Well, Lomeli prays for guidance and decides he can’t do nothing, and so in the middle of the night he calmly breaks into the former Pope’s apartment and searches it until – in the tradition of schoolboy adventure stories – he discovers that the old Pope’s massive, antique wooden bed contains hidden compartments. And in these compartments Lomeli discovers the report the late Pope had commissioned which turns out to be a root and branch investigation into the finances of each and every one of the cardinals, with generally shocking results.

But in particular Lomeli discovers indisputable proof that smooth-operator Tremblay had been paying other cardinals to vote for him. This is the sin of corruption or simony.

Not only that, but he discovers it was definitely Tremblay who arranged for the African nun to be brought to Rome to stymie Joshua’s chances! What a schemer! What a crook!

As usual we are given access to Lomeli’s private thoughts as he ponders what on earth to do, before deciding that God has helped him discover all this, and it is not his job to conceal it: if he waits till after Tremblay is elected pope and this all gets out – as, he ruefully reflects, every secret the Vatican has tried to smother for the previous fifty years does, eventually, leak out – think what damage it will do to the institution he has served all his life.

And so he co-opts the assistance of the steely-willed head of the Vatican’s nuns, Sister Agnes, head of the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, and between them, overnight, they make 118 photocopies of the dead Pope’s damning report into Cardinal Tremblay’s activities and place one on every seat in the cardinals’ refectory. As they come down to breakfast the next morning, one by one they read it, leading to uproar. In a dramatic scene Tremblay stands, confronts the accusations head on, and claims Lomeli has only done this to sabotage him, Tremblay, and promote his, Lomeli’s, chances of becoming pope.

Which, for a moment, sways the cardinals against Lomeli until the steely little nun Sister Agnes breaks all convention by speaking in the refectory, demanding to be heard, and announces to the horrified cardinals that she can vouch for the fact that it was Tremblay who requested the African nun be transferred to Rome and thereby sabotaged cardinal Adeyemi’s candidature.

After which the tide turns against Tremblay, and he can only stand begging for understanding and denying it’s true as the rest of the cardinals turns their backs on him.

And so, with only eighty pages of this 380-page-long book left to go and the two front runners, Adeyemi and Tremblay, dramatically withdrawn from the race, who on earth is going to win?

Two bombshells

With Adeyemi and Tremblay knocked out, the next ballot puts Lomeli ahead as front runner, though without the necessary two-thirds majority, when there is an abrupt and shocking change in the tone of the book. A car bomb goes off in St Peter’s Square out front of the Vatican. And a suicide bomber blows himself up. And a terrorist goes into a Catholic church in Munich and starts machine-gunning the congregation.

Suddenly, and irrevocably, the rather charming, old-world if intriguing atmosphere of the novel is shattered. If you have any imagination, you can hear the screams of the wounded, the smell of burned flesh, the body parts scattered across the cobbles. For me this sudden eruption of the real world shattered the rather quaint, almost Ealing Comedy era atmosphere Harris had created.

Lomeli finds out what has happened from O’Malley and then, as usual, agonises about whether to even tell the other cardinals. they heard the loud explosion. Indeed some of the stained glass in the lobby of the chapel was blown in, but it is against the rules of the conclave to bring in any extraneous subject – otherwise it would turn into a political talking shop, not a retreat for spiritual meditation.

Eventually, Lomeli decides he will tell the assembled cardinals what is going on (it is, as it has been all the way through, his job to run the conclave, as Dean of the College of Cardinals: that’s why Harris chose him to be the main protagonist of the story).

Once he has it prompts two speeches from the assembled cardinals. First of all the son of peasants, the ultra-conservative Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Tedesco, declares that, in light of this atrocity, all the Catholics in the world will be looking for strong leadership. If he’d stopped there he would have seized the meeting, but he unwisely goes on to lambast all the progressive tendencies of the last 50 years, tolerance of homosexuality, of divorced Catholics remarrying, up to and including the mass immigration which has seen countless mosques being built across Italy, home of the Catholic Church, and it s during his tirade against Islam that the first cries of ‘Shame’ and ‘Boo’ are heard.

When he finally sits down, to everyone’s surprise it is the shy, retiring and inexperienced Vincent Benítez, Archbishop of Baghdad, who asks to be heard, and makes an impassioned plea for tolerance and forgiveness. He has tended to Christians dying in Muslim lands and can tell his fellow cardinals that not one of them wanted vengeance. they all died in the spirit of Christ, asking for their murders to be forgiven.

This quiet speech for the first time creates a real sense of religion, of holiness, in the chapel. Lomeli finds himself being lifted by it, and when the next ballot is held he unequivocally votes for Benítez and then listens, dazed, as the votes are counted and the secret cardinal of Baghdad is voted Pope!

But that isn’t the second bombshell. This comes when Prefect of the Papal Household, Woźniak, staggering at the news, asks to take Lomeli aside for a hurried word. Right back at the start of the narrative it had been Woźniak who told Lomeli that the previous Pope had dismissed Tremblay and Lomeli had asked him to do a bit of digging, which led to the revelation that the former Pope had commissioned the report. But  Woźniak had also done a bit of digging into Benítez while he was at it.

Back then, three days earlier, he’d told Lomeli that Benítez had been involved in a car bomb explosion in Baghdad, been injured but (obviously) survived, and there were some references to him being booked into to go to a clinic in Switzerland, a visit which was then cancelled and here he is at the conclave, having just been voted Pope. But Woźniak has only just had time to find out more, to contact the clinic and discover it is a clinic for gender reassignment.

My God. Lomeli runs through to the small Room of tears where Benítez is already being fitted into the papal robes. They have sent the white smoke out the chimney. Already the crowd in St Peter’s Square is roaring. He is only minutes from making his appearance and his first speech.

Lomeli turfs everyone else out the room and demands Benítez tells him the truth. So he does. Benítez was born with the genitals of a girl, but his parents (like so many parents in developing countries, wanting a boy) raised him and dressed him as a boy and, of course, as soon as he started attending seminary school, and then into the junior priesthood, he didn’t give sex a thought, he didn’t see other men’s genitals, his looked normal to him. It was only when he was injured in the car bomb and went to hospital, that a full inspection revealed he was a woman. He went straight to the former Pope to discuss it, and himself made a booking at the gender reassignment clinic. But then realised this is the way he’s made. This is the way God made him. And this is the destiny God has chosen for him. Who is he to say no to God.

And leaving Lomeli perplexed and bewildered the new Pope continues dressing ready to greet his flock of over 1 billion souls, the first ladyboy to be Pope!

Clichés and clarity

On page one we read a description of cardinal Lomeli making his way at two in the morning to the pope’s apartment.

The Rome air was soft and misty yet already he could detect the first faint chill of autumn. (p.1)

Later on we read that:

Once, in his youth, Lomeli had enjoyed a modest fame for the richness of his baritone. But it had become thin with age, like a fine wine left too long. (p.115)

A cliché can be defined as a thought or description which you’ve read or heard so many times before that it slips past the eye or ear with the minimum amount of disturbance, barely registering, like soothing background music in a restaurant or hotel lobby. It is designed not to detain you but speed you on your way to your business appointment.

This is true of a great deal if not most of Harris’s writing – it is smooth and effective without stirring any ripples. If you pause for thought, it is at what he is reporting – documentary explanation of the byzantine procedures of the Vatican or the latest revelation in the fast-moving plot – but never the way he reports it. As befits a man trained by years in journalism, Harris’s English is unfailingly clear and lucid.

Harris isn’t an awful writer, he is a very good writer, but of a kind of clear and rational prose which is almost devoid of colour. This is very effective when conveying factual information (and his novels tend to be packed with factual information which needs to be written out as clearly as possible in order for the reader to understand what is at stake.) But it leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to character.

I’ve just read Munich, his thriller set during the 1938 Munich Crisis and the best parts of it, the bits which have stayed with me most, are his documentary descriptions of the actual meetings between Neville Chamberlain and Hitler. The personalities of the two male protagonists of the thriller plot pale into insignificance next to the factual content. They are like competent watercolours placed next to an oil painting.

Same here. Lomeli is meant to be Italian, a crusty, 75-year-old, dogmatic, Catholic cardinal of an Italian; just imagine what a rebarbative, rich, gnarly old cuss he must be, and all the sins and corruption he must witnessed, and the decades of in-fighting and politicking he has had to navigate. You’d imagine he would have wildly un-PC views about race, homosexuality, women and so on. Just imagine the depths of cynicism this tottering old Italian must have sunk to, what a monstrous character could have been created.

And yet, in Harris’s hands, Lomeli is a decent chap who thinks in perfectly lucid, grammatically perfect, English sentences. There is no confusion in his mind. He reacts to new information or insights with the thoroughness of a computer, processing them and thinking entirely rationally about what to do next. If he is temporarily at a loss, things soon reappear to him in a cool rational way.

Harris makes a few gestures towards Lomeli’s age, his decrepit body, his wavery voice and the fact that he has difficulty sleeping, but these are all on the surface. Lomeli’s mind is never confused or overcome by bias or prejudice or cantankerous feelings. In fact he hardly has any feeling. Harris gives him ‘moments of doubt’ when he kneels and prays to God for help and advice. But none of these convey any emotion at all, let alone a sense of genuine religious anguish or loss. They are window dressing.

This is because Lomeli is a cypher, a cog at the centre of the plot. In a thriller, the plot is everything, literally everything. Each new development must be communicated in as clear a way as possible so that the reader can share the sense of suspense and thrill and excitement. Any lingering over description or psychology just gets in the way of the slow release of new information to build up suspense.

So Lomeli is given a few superficial trappings of age and experience:

He switched on the stuttering light and checked himself in the bluish glow: front first, then his left side, then his right. His profile had become beaky with age. He thought he looked like some elderly moulting bird. (p.138)

But no real psychological depth, no sense of the countless physical degradations of age or the incredible depth of experience such a man must have. Instead he sounds much like you or me, a decent chap doing a tricky job.

Instead he is Hercule Poirot in the Vatican, on the trail of several mysteries, as the clock ticks on and the conclave votes go by – breaking into sealed apartments, investigating the dead pope’s last wishes, uncovering sin and corruption.

And, at the end of the day, what he uncovers (until the final revelation) is relatively clean and straightforward:

1. Adeyemi had an affair with a pretty young woman which, to most of us, is acceptable and forgiveable. It was a breach of trust and an abuse of his position. But it wasn’t the systematic sexual abuse of under-age boys, which is the real story in the modern Catholic Church. This subject is referred to a couple of times by Harris’s cardinals but is treated very much as something of the past, something that has been dealt with and is behind the church now. Which we know not to be true. The opposite. It shows every sign of growing to really profoundly undermine the Catholic Church forever.

2. Similarly, we learn that Cardinal Tremblay has doled out what appear to be mere tens of thousands of Euros to cardinals to get them to vote for him; but there is no mention of the far, far bigger, scandalous involvements of the Vatican Bank with the Mafia, with organised crime, drugs and people smuggling, and a shadowy network of freemason, which emerged in the 1980s.

In the middle of the book, when not much had been revealed and it is full of dark premonitions, I imagined the big secret would turn out that Tremblay had murdered the Pope because he was uncovering a vast web of financial corruption. It all turns out to be that Tremblay was directing Church funds towards the generally backward and impoverished dioceses of cardinals he hoped would vote for him.

In other words, Harris’s protagonist uncovers ‘scandal’ but it is relatively clean and respectable scandal. Nothing to seriously frighten the horses.

Maybe this is part of the deal he did with the Vatican, whose authorities gave him such full access to the Vatican, even rooms off limits to the public and gave him every help and advice. Maybe in return Harris pledged to keep the ‘scandal’ on the safe side. Or maybe there was no deal or understanding, Harris was just being tactful and polite. Or maybe these relatively minor transgressions were his plan all along.

Whatever the motivation, in his earlier novels, protagonists proceeded from the everyday world and slowly uncovered vast and horrifying conspiracies which underlie it – hence their tremendous grip and excitement. Whereas this ‘thriller’ about the Vatican, in the end delivers ‘revelations’ which are pale and insignificant compared to the actual scandals which have rocked and continue to rock the Catholic Church.

Hence, for me anyway, a tremendous sense of disappointment and anti-climax.

The car bombs

That said, the midly intriguing narrative is turned upside down by the car bombs which, for me, ruin the tone of the book. they introduce a note of real tragedy and bloodshed which is all to recent and real for a Londoner like me. And all the less necessary as, in the end, their only use in the plot is to provide the opportunity for a speech by the arch conservative which loses him the papacy, and the quiet speech in favour of forgiveness which wins it for Benítez.

And then there is the revelation that the new pope is a woman!

This, for me, reduced the whole thing to an extended joke, with this revelation as the punchline. The climax of Harris’s first and best book, Fatherland, was the revelation of the Holocaust in a Nazi Germany which had won the war and successfully covered its appalling secret. The slow uncovering of the truth and the final scenes of full knowledge, made my hair stand on end with genuine fear and terror.

The last few pages of Conclave did quite the reverse, and make me laugh out loud at its politically correct, bien-pensant, North London liberalism.

Not only have almost all the cardinals all the way through been immaculately correct in their attitude to black and other Third World cardinals, none of them has had a flicker of a thought about women, let alone choirboys (with the egregious, scapegoating exception of Adeyema), and now the result of all this praying by all these decent, upstanding, compassionate old men turns out to be… electing a woman Pope!

Very funny. Very suave. Very slick. But more like a Guardian editorial turned into a novel than his earlier, genuinely gripping, thrillers.


Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.

1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?

1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.

2007 The Ghost – The unnamed narrator is a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.

2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.

2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

2016 Conclave We follow Dean of the College of Cardinals, Jacopo Lomeli, as he supervises the conclave called in the Vatican to elect a new Pope, only to discover a number of scandals which compromise most of the leading candidates, and lead up to a very unexpected result.

2017 Munich A young German civil servant tries to smuggle a key document showing Hitler’s true intentions to his opposite number during the fateful Munich Conference of September 1939, complicated by the fact that the pair were once friends who shared a mistress until she met a terrible fate at the hands of the Gestapo.

Fatherland by Robert Harris (1992)

‘What do you do,’ he said, ‘if you devote your life to discovering criminals, and it gradually occurs to you that the real criminals are the people you work for? What do you do when everyone tells you not to worry, you can’t do anything about it, it was a long time ago?’ (p.213)

Robert Harris

Harris went to Cambridge where he read English, was president of the Union and editor of the student newspaper Varsity. He joined the BBC, where he worked on its flagship current affairs programmes, Panorama and Newsnight. In 1987 he became political editor of the Observer newspaper. In the 1980s he wrote five factual journalistic books – about chemical and biological warfare, the Falklands War, Neil Kinnock, the Hitler Diaries scandal and a study of Mrs Thatcher’s press secretary. It is an exemplary career of its type.

Fatherland

In 1992 Harris took the publishing world by storm when he published his first novel, Fatherland, set in an alternative world where Germany has won the Second World War. The two big ‘divergence points’ in this version of history – i.e. where this version turned away from actual history – were that:

  1. German armies cut off the Russians from their oil sources in the Caucasus and so were able to force them back to the line of the Urals, conquering Russian territory far beyond Moscow. In the novel this has given rise to a whole settler movement to encourage good Aryans to go and live in the vast new Eastern Empire, although fighting continues out on the remote border. Everyone knows the Americans are supplying money and weapons to the rump of the Russian army to allow them to fight on, and there are also dark rumours of ‘terrorist’ attacks on German settlers.
  2. The Nazis realised in 1942 that the British had cracked their Enigma code and so issued an entirely new code machine to all their U-boats, which were then able to sink Allied convoys at will. Britain was eventually starved into submission, ‘Churchill and his gang’ forced to flee to Canada, and peace made with the Nazi-friendly King Edward VIII. With no ally left in Europe, America has no alternative but to make a grudging peace with Germany and turn its efforts to defeating Japan in the Pacific (which it does).

As a result of German victory:

Luxembourg had become Moselland, Alsace-Lorraine was Westmark; Austria was Ostmark. As for Czechoslovakia – that bastard child of Versailles had dwindled to the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia – vanished from the map. In the East, the German Empire was carved four ways into the Reichskommisariats Ostland, Ukraine, Caucasus, Muscovy. (p.201)

and Portugal, Spain, France, Ireland, Great Britain, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland have all been corralled by Germany into a European trading bloc under German control.

Xavier March

But all of this is old history to Xavier ‘Zavi’ March, ‘solitary, watchful’ (p.26), the world-weary Berlin cop – to be precise, a Sturmbannführer in the Kripo or Kriminalpolizei – who is the protagonist of this brilliantly gripping and disturbing thriller.

Like all fictional cops, March’s private life is a mess (his wife, Klara, has divorced him, taking his ten-year-old son, Pili, who has been taught to hate him as ‘insufficiently patriotic’) so now March inhabits a pokey flat in a squalid apartment block and lives only for his job. He doesn’t have a drink problem, which is a relief – but he does chain-smoke and he does worry about things.

The novel is set in 1964, over the five days between 14 April and the Führertag – 20 April – the day Germans (in this parallel universe) celebrate the birthday of Adolf Hitler. Not only that, but the newspapers are full of the impending visit of the US President Kennedy (in one of the many jokes that alternative histories allow, Harris makes this President Kennedy, the father of the one we know and love – the alleged crook and political fixer, Joseph Kennedy). Thus, like so many thrillers, Fatherland uses the build-up to big background events to crank up the tension in the main plot.

Like all good detective novels, it starts with a body, a man’s body is found in a lake in Berlin. After a lot of procedural work – visits to the gruesome autopsy, trips to the archives, calls to colleagues in other departments – March establishes that the dead man was a certain Buhler, a party official high up in the administration of occupied Poland early in the war. March discovers that Buhler had recently been in touch with two colleagues, Stuckart and Luther – but when March tries to track down these men he finds one is dead and the other missing.

Moreover, the investigation is only really getting going when March discovers it has been handed over to the Gestapo, who outrank his Kripo organisation and March is told to stand down. However, like every fictional investigator in every thriller ever, March is a conscientious maverick and so disregards orders to abandon the investigation. He goes poking around Buhler’s lakeside house, finding odd clues – for example Buhler had lost a foot in the war, blown off in a mine, and he discovers the plastic prosthetic foot in mud by the lake shore… Why would a man strip off for a swim in a freezing lake on a rainy Berlin day?

He then tracks down the feisty American woman journalist who reported Stuckart’s death to the authorities, one Charlie Maguire. She tells him Stuckart phoned to make an appointment to see her, but when she arrived at his apartment it was to find his blood-soaked corpse next to a gun and a suicide note.

Against his better judgement March finds himself confiding in Charlie, to the extent of persuading her to go back to the apartment with him and his trusty partner, Jaeger, to see if there are any clues. Here March’s superior police skills are demonstrated when he finds a hidden safe the ordinary cops had missed; they are just examining the contents when several cars screech up outside; it is the fearful Gestapo. Bundling Charlie out a back way, March and Jaeger remain to take the heat and they are arrested by the Gestapo and thrown into the cells. Anything could happen, including the torture they all know exists, but which is rarely discussed.

Instead, after stewing the whole night, the following morning they are driven back out to Buhler’s mansion by the lake where the two cops realise there is a power struggle going on over the investigation. On the one hand is Obergruppenführer Odilo Globocnik, universally known as Globus – the bull-necked sadist General in the Gestapo. March knows from a witness that Globus was seen at the lake where Buhler’s body was later found. He suspects he also had some part in Stuckart’s murder. Is Globus killing these men and making it look like suicide? But why? Facing him is wiry little Artur Nebe, the thin, shrewd head of the Kripo (or the Oberstgruppenführer, Reich Kriminalpolizei). Nebe listens to Globus rant about March disobeying orders to desist investigating, but out-ranks him and decides to give March the benefit of the doubt.

Globus marches March, Jaeger and Nebe down into Buhler’s cellar, where his men have broken through a panel to reveal a secret room absolutely stuffed with priceless European works of art. Triumphant, Globus asserts that Buhler, Stuckart and Luther were in cahoots to smuggle art works from the East, where Buhler worked, then out of the country to make themselves rich. When they realised their scam was discovered they killed themselves in shame. That’s it.

Outside Nebe takes March aside and puts him in the picture, telling him that Globus has reported him – March – to the terrifying Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Gestapo, and requested that March be immediately reposted from Berlin to some crappy provincial police force. What? Why? Because this affair is about much more than stolen art: March is blundering into something much bigger than he realises. Globus knows that March knows that Globus is somehow implicated, and therefore tried to persuade Heydrich to dispose of him. But Nebe convinced Heydrich to give March four days’ grace. Solve the case, Nebe tells March: report back to me everything you discover, and I may just be able to save your career.

Thus Harris deftly turns up the pressure on our man, who now has the threat of his career being ended and a swift exile to somewhere ghastly out in the occupied East, all set against the tension throughout Berlin rising with the approach of the Führertagand the impending visit of the US President, fraught with its own geopolitical ramifications. (It is testimony to Harris’s complete grasp of this parallel reality, that the implications of Kennedy’s visit are worked out so thoroughly; as a colleague tells him, it must indicate the war in the East is going really badly if Germany is prepared to cosy up to its long-term antagonist in the so-called ‘Cold War’, the United States, in what contemporaries are referring to as a new spirit of ‘détente’ – all this being, of course, a wry rethinking of the actual Cold War we know in our reality, the one between the US and the victorious USSR, and the well-known détente of the 1970s between them.)

Harris’s style

This book is written with great panache and style. It feels as if Harris has learned from all previous thriller writers, plus his own journalistic success, to deploy a prose style which is really taut and compressed. No matter how many times I had to put it down to go to work or cook dinner or other distractions, I was able to pick it up and within a few pages be back in its world, thoroughly gripped.

The comedy of alternative history

Alternative history is a recognised academic field now. I first heard of it via Niall Ferguson’s 1997 book, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals. ‘Normal history’ is already full of irony, unintended consequences, comedy and farce. But alternative histories give the author the opportunity for commentary on the ‘real world’ at any number of levels, from the profoundly challenging, scholarly and intellectual, to the witty and waspish. Thus, in Harris’s universe, where Germany won the Second World War:

  • Cecil Beaton did some charming photo portraits of the Führer
  • four young lads from Liverpool are doing concerts in Hamburg which the authorities disapprove of (p.198)
  • The American president is a Kennedy, but not the stylish young dude we knew, rather his piratical anti-semitic father, Joseph
  • there is an SS Academy in Oxford (p.183)
  • there was a Treaty of Rome (as in the real world) but this one tied unoccupied Europe into a trading zone dominated by Germany

These comments are often very witty, but their overall effect is quite a profound one – for they raise the question of how much the deep currents of history can be altered or derailed? Would Germany have dominated the continent of Europe, have created a European Union, would German industry, German cars and TVs still have dominated our shops, would German tourists have hogged the best loungers and German football teams kept on winning the Euro and World cups, regardless of who won the war? Would the Beatles and 1960s protest have happened regardless of the outcome?

Are there patterns of social and economic and technological change which have their own ineluctable logic, which are unavoidable no matter what the outcome of wars, the decisions of politicians, the coming and going of revolutions and restorations? Is there a kind of fatality about the overall direction of human history, unaffected by even the largest social or political events?

The Holocaust

As the novel progresses March and Charlie become an item, falling in love and sleeping together, as they try to figure out what’s going on, each with their own perspective – March the conscientious cop, Charlie the American journalist looking for a scoop, both realising there’s something fishy about Globus’s art smuggling story.

As part of their deal, Nebe allows March out of the country for 24 hours, to fly to Zurich because he has established that Luther, the only one of the trio unaccounted for, flew to Zurich a few weeks earlier. And in Stuckart’s apartment, in the hidden safe, he discovered the number and key of a Swiss safety deposit box. Putting 2 and 2 together, he speculates that Luther flew out on behalf of all three to get something – what?

But when he and Charlie open the box in the Swiss bank they find nothing in it but an admittedly invaluable painting by Leonardo da Vinci. So is it all about art? Nothing but a big art smuggling scam? But in passport control back at Berlin, it dawns on March that Luther might have deliberately left something to be found as ‘lost luggage’, planning to reclaim it later, not knowing he would have to go on the run. Acting on this hunch he pulls in a favour from an old buddy in the airport staff and wangles hold of a stylish briefcase left behind after the flight which he and Charlie know Luther took back from Zurich, and with Luther’s initials. Must be his.

What they find inside comes a bombshell to them and the reader. Iit is a big collection of documents which the novel reprints verbatim over the next thirty pages or so. Most of them (as the afterword explains) are actual Nazi documents from the war detailing the construction of the Holocaust death camps, documents recording the high-level policy decisions to solve ‘the Jewish problem’ once and for all, a decision which led to mountains of bureaucratic paperwork organising the supply of bricks and mortar, new railway schedules of trains bringing Jews from the West to occupied Poland, to build the gas chambers and to supply the Zyklon B nerve gas, in an organised, psychopathic, industrialised attempt to murder all 11 million of Europe’s Jews.

For the next forty or fifty pages Charlie and March read through the documents and try to come to terms with what they’ve discovered. In their version of history, none of this is known. Germans sort of suspect it and sort of make jokes about it, but it is nowhere written down or recorded, the Jewish inhabitants of March’s flat before him – the Weiss family – have been obliterated from the record and so have all the other Jews of Europe.

This is a truly terrifying vision in a number of ways.

1. In this version of history the Germans succeed in wiping out the Jews. Completely. Not leaving 2 or 3 or 4 million to survive and go on to build their own independent state. None. None survive. Complete annihilation. While Charlie and March are getting used to the scale of this monstrous deceit and historical genocide, the reader is grappling with the notion that an entire race or nation can be wiped out and – it have no results. Europe carries on. People moan about the weather and their work and their wives and no-good children. The Jews are gone as if they had never been.

2. On another level, the reader is also rereading some of the actual key documents from the creation of the Holocaust, an experience which makes you feel traumatised, disgusted and shattered with despair all over again.

One of the documents is a five-page description of the visit Luther himself made to Auschwitz in his official position as a senior Nazi in Poland. He records the detraining of 60 wagons full of Jewish men, women and children who have been packed into the cattle trucks for four days and nights, during which many have died. He records the separation off of the fit men who will be worked to death, and the immediate hussling of the remaining sick, women, children and elderly direct to the gas chamber where they are told to strip off for delousing, and then coralled into the chamber and the door locked. Then the scientists arrive with the canisters which they empty into the chutes which go down into the floor of the chamber. Here the mauve crystals of Zyklon B are oxidised to become the fatal nerve gas which then pours unstoppably up through the grilles in the floor, creating an indescribable frenzy as the people inside scrabble over each other in futile attempts to escape.

These five pages alone overwhelm much of the rest of the book. It is difficult to continue reading and impossible to read the rest of the book in the previous frame of mind.

The documents indicate that there was a ring of some 14 Nazi officials who all worked in the same part of the Death camp division. March makes enquiries and discovers that one by one they’ve been dying off, killed in road accidents, mysterious explosions, ‘suicides’. Someone is killing off these final witnesses to the atrocity. It must have been this which prompted Stuckart, Buhler and Luther to panic and go for the documents in Zurich which they hoped to use as some kind of passport to escape.

While March had been away investigating Charlie received a phone call from the missing Luther. He wants to meet next day at the central station. He wants Charlie’s help to be smuggled out of Germany and to America, along with the documents. Next day March parks nervously across from the station steps and watches Charlie and her friend from the US Embassy wait tensely. Finally a furtive figure emerges from the crowds and moves towards them, is only meters away when… His head explodes, vaporises, demolished by the high velocity bullet of a professional assassin. Spattered with blood, in shock, Charlie is hussled into March’s car which takes off with a squeal of breaks.

Now they realise their phone calls and apartments are bugged. March takes Charlie to a hotel whose owner owes him a favour and they hide out in a small attic room. Here March supervises Charlie’s bid to flee Germany. They dye her hair to look like a young woman who was killed in an unrelated car accident earlier in the week and whose passport March has swiped from his offices for just this purpose. He packs her off in a hired car, telling her to drive south and cross the border into Switzerland. He promises to meet her there, but they both know he won’t. By now the atmosphere of doom lies too heavy over the story.

Instead March drives out to the crappy suburb where his ex-wife lives to see his son for one last time, to try and make amends for being such a bad dad. But, in a bitter twist of the knife, it turns out that Globus and his thugs have suborned his son to act nice and keep his Daddy busy until they can surround the house. They burst in, arrest March and take him to Gestapo headquarters, where Globus plays very bad cop, alternating with a more ‘civilised’ Gestapo interviewer, Krebs, who gives the bloodied March cigarettes, and tries to wheedle the truth out of him. Both want to know a) what was in the case and b) where’s the girl?

The torture scenes go on over many pages describing days and nights of pain and delirium, climaxing in the scene where several thugs man-handle March’s right forearm onto the table and Globus, with all his strength, swings a baseball bat down on to March’s hand, reducing it to a mangled pulp of bloody flesh.

Finally, the authorities try a con trick: Krebs, the more sympathetic of the interrogators, arrives with a sympathetic doctor, gives him painkillers and clean clothes, then takes him by car, ostensibly to another dungeon. But then he stops the car on a pretext and takes March down into some old war ruins. Here the sly Nebe steps out of the shadows, in a scene straight out of a hundred movies. Nebe says that he and Krebs have both been scandalised and disgusted by what March has told them about the Holocaust. They have always hated the Gestapo and their brutal methods, and so they want March to successfully smuggle the documents out of Germany, to be published in American, so the rest of the world can see what criminals are running the regime. They push him towards a car in which is waiting his fat partner, Jaeger. ‘Where shall I take you?’ Jaeger asks.

But even through the blood and pain and drugs of his torture wounds, March realises it is a trap. They are hoping he will take them to the girl and to the remaining documents. So he draws a gun on Jaeger and with his last energy orders him, not to drive south to where he hopes Charlie is crossing the Swiss border, but East, across the border into what was once Poland, driving for hours and hundreds of kilometers until he forces Jaeger to drive off the Autobahn onto the local road and then onto local farm tracks which lead out to the empty acres of derelict industrial land where once stood the appalling death camp Auschwitz, which he has read so much about.

During his torture by Globus, the fat sadist had gloated that, yes, he, Globus, took part in the extermination of the Jews and yes, he is proud of it, but that the world will never know. All the evidence has been destroyed. All the Jews are gone, all the buildings were destroyed long ago, and all the paperwork was burned like the bodies. Almost the only evidence left in the world is the documents Buhler and Stuckart and Luther had squirreled away in their Swiss bank as insurance in case their art smuggling was discovered. And now, Globus gloats in March’s blood-sodden face, all three are dead, and soon they will have the girl and the briefcase and all March’s clever investigation will have been for nothing.

So March has come to the bare barren land which was Auschwitz for two reasons: to decoy the Gestapo he knows must be following him, as far away as possible from his lover and her desperate mission to inform the world; and to see for himself whether it’s true: whether there really is no record, no sign, no testimony at all to the greatest horror in human history.

Thus he is still stumbling across the grass and mud looking for evidence, for bricks or doors or metal frames, for anything – when he hears the cars arrive, and the helicopter which had been following them from Berlin coming up overhead, carrying the Gestapo with their machine guns. ‘Drop your weapon,’ they shout through loudspeakers, so March turns and cocks his Luger, determined not to be taken alive.

And that’s the end. March is obviously going to die, but what about Charlie? Will she escape to Switzerland? Will she get anyone to publish the documents? Will anyone believe her? And will the US government – which has invested so much in President Kennedy’s visit to the old enemy, Nazi Germany, and its new policy of détente – allow this major geopolitical initiative to be derailed by a hysterical woman with her grotesque and improbable claims?

The novel leaves you reeling not only with the horror of the secret at its heart, but also at the seeming hopelessness of exposing the truth in a world where everyone has a vested interest in keeping it hidden.

Credit

Fatherland by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson books in 1992. All quotes and references are to the 1993 Arrow Books paperback edition.


Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.
1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?
1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.
2007 The Ghost – The gripping story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator, a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.
2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.
2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

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