Dictator by Robert Harris (2015)

‘My skill is statecraft and that requires me to be alive and in Rome.’
(Cicero talking to Tiro, Dictator, page 36)

This is the third and concluding novel in the Robert Harris’s epic ‘Cicero trilogy’. Harris is a highly successful writer of intelligent thrillers and in the Cicero trilogy he has applied the style and mentality of a modern thriller to the life of the Roman lawyer and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 to 43 BC) with great success.

Book one, Imperium, covered Cicero’s life and career over the years 79 to 64 BC, the second novel, Lustrum, covered the five years from 63 to 58, and this concluding volume covers the last 15 years of his life, from 58 to his murder at the hands of agents of Mark Antony in 44 BC.

I’ve covered the outline of Cicero’s life in my reviews of his letters and Plutarch’s Life:

Tiro’s memoirs

As with its two predecessors, Dictator (a weighty 504 pages long) purports to be part of the multi-volume first-person memoir of Cicero written by his loyal slave and personal secretary Tiro almost 40 years after Cicero’s death:

I still possess my shorthand notes…it is from these that I have been able to reconstruct the many conversations, speeches and letters that make up this memoir of Cicero (p.37)

A summary cannot convey the skill with which Harris plunges you right into the heart of the toxic politics of republican Rome, or into the mind of Tiro, the shrewd, literate observer of the dilemmas and experiences of Cicero, a figure who combined wit and dazzling oratory with a profound interest in contemporary philosophy and, above all, deep embroilment in the complex power politics of his day. It is an utterly absorbing and thrilling read.

Tiro is aged 46 when the narrative opens (p.40).

Sources

Because there is so much information flying in from different places about so many events, Harris relies much more than in both the previous books combined on actual historical documents, on Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars in the early part (for example, pages 147 to 148), then on the letters to and from Cicero, for example to and from his lifelong friend Atticus.

Like the preceding two novels Dictator is divided into two substantial parts:

Part one – Exile (58 to 47 BC)

‘Exile’ is a slightly misleading title as Cicero was only in exile from Rome for 18 months, returning in late 57 BC. And it doesn’t really refer to a spiritual or political exile either since, once he returned to Rome, he was right back in the thick of political intrigue and returned to his position as Rome’s leading barrister.

The narrative begins exactly where Lustrum broke off, with Cicero, Tiro and a few slaves secretly leaving Rome at night due to the threat against his life issued by the populist politician Publius Clodius Pulcher. Clodius issues a law saying anyone who gives Cicero help, food or fire within 500 km of Rome is liable to execution.

They clandestinely travel south but their attempt to sail to Sicily is blocked by the governor (p.7). Travel back across Italy to Brundisium (11). Nightmare sea crossing to Dyrrachium (13 to 15). Governor of Macedonia, old friend Apuleius Saturninus, sends a message saying Cicero can’t stay with him (16). But one of Saturninus’s junior magistrates, the quaestor Gnaeus Plancius, offers to put him up in his town house in Thessalonika. News of Cicero’s wife and family’s mistreatment back in Rome (21). His luxury house has been burned down, the land confiscated and a shrine to ‘Liberty’ erected.

Clodius and his gangs have complete control of Rome. His sort-of ally Cato the Younger has been packed off to serve as governor of Cyprus (22). Atticus tells him about a fight between Gnaeus Pompey’s men and Clodius’s men for possession of the son of the King of Armenia, a hostage held by Rome, in which one of Pompey’s friends is killed. This decisively turns Pompey against Clodius and he now regrets having supported Cicero’s exile (24).

Unexpected arrival of the fierce ex-gladiator Titus Annius Milo, who has just managed to be elected tribune and offers his services to Cicero, accompanied by a really hard-looking gladiator named Birria (30). He explains he offered Pompey the services of 100 hardened gladiators to confront Clodius’s gangs in exchange for Pompey helping him (Milo) get elected tribune. Pompey himself has been attacked and forced back to his house by Clodius’s gangs so now he whole-heartedly wants Cicero back.

But there’s a catch: Cicero must ‘reassure’ Caesar i.e. promise not to oppose him. So Cicero’s exile will be ended if he agrees to truckle to the Triumvirate. Milo says he must send a letter and emissary to Caesar in person, so Tiro sets off on the long journey across the Adriatic, up Italy and finds Caesar doing his assizes at a town called Mutina in Cisalpine Gaul (41).

Publius Crassus, son of Marcus, spots Tiro in the queue of supplicants and takes him to see the great man in person. Tiro finds Caesar naked on a table being given a massage by a big black man (46). He scans Cicero’s letter in which he promises to meekly support Caesar’s legislation and keep out of politics and simply signs it ‘Approved’ (48). (While waiting, Publius shows Tiro copies of the Commentaries Caesar is writing, the annual account of his campaigns which he is having published back in Rome to win support – see my reviews of Caesar’s Gallic Wars for a summary. Harris also uses it to meditate on the appalling atrocities Caesar carried out against the Gauls, see below.)

Atticus is sending him letters from Rome keeping him informed and tells him that although Clodius’s gangs are still beating up their opponents (including Cicero’s brother, Quintus) the tide is turning against him. Friendly senators arrange a vote of the entire citizenry which is unanimous to have Cicero’s exile ended (52) and then restore full rights of citizenship (57).

Cicero’s triumphant march from Brundisium to Rome, feted and welcomed at every village and town. Reunion with brother Quintus who he hasn’t seen for 2 years (while he’s been off serving with Caesar in Gaul) (61). A vivid description of his triumphal entry into Rome and the ceremonies around his restoration as a citizen (63).

Because his house was demolished, Cicero’s household move in with brother Quintus. The two wives do not get on, but Cicero’s marriage to Terentia is under strain. She gave him her full support on the understanding he would be a success. Exile was the extreme opposite of success and exposed her, back in Rome, to any number of threats and humiliations (65).

Straight back into toxic politics. In return for his support in having his exile rescinded, Pompey wants Cicero to propose a bill giving Pompey executive control over Rome’s food supply for the next five years (68). This will redirect the people’s loyalty from Clodius’s crowd-pleasing back to Pompey, an establishment figure.

Clodius still has control of street gangs and sets a crowd to besiege Cicero and his family in Quintus’s house (73 to 78) until they smuggle a slave out to fetch Milo and his gladiators who see off Clodius’s thugs.

Next day Cicero presents Pompey’s grain powers bill in the senate and wins a huge ovation, supporters carry him to the rostra where he addresses a cheering crowd and then introduces the man of the hour, Pompey (81-81). Pompey accompanies Cicero home and tries to strong arm him into becoming one of the 15 food commissioners; is disgruntled when Cicero refuses (he’s only just got back to Rome and his family), so Pompey bullies Quintus into reluctantly taking up a post in Sicily (82).

Vivid description of Cicero presenting his case to the College of Pontiffs to have ownership of his (ruined) house returned to him, claiming it was never properly sanctified, helped by the discovery that the so-called Statue of Liberty Clodius set up in the ruins is actually a half-naked statue stolen from Greece where it adorned the tomb of a famous courtesan. Clodius’s case is laughed out of court and the land restored to Cicero to rebuild his mansion (85-89).

But workmen starting to rebuild it are attacked and Clodius’s gangs throw firebrands onto Quintus’s house nearly burning it down (93), forcing the family to go and stay at Atticus’s empty house. Eight days later they are walking along the Via Sacra when they are attacked by Clodius and a dozen of his hoods carrying cudgels and swords and only escape by dodging into a nearby house (94).

Terentia shows Cicero the weals on her back where she was savagely whipped on the orders of Clodia, Clodius’s fearsome sister, while Cicero was in exile (96)

The affair of Dio of Alexander, philosopher from Alexandria who had come to Rome to petition against the return of the pharaoh Ptolemy and is one day found murdered. Ptolemy is staying with Pompey and so suspicion falls on him, specifically on one of his managers, Asicius. Pompey strong-arms Cicero into defending him (100). Asicius chooses as alibi the young protege of Cicero’s, Calius Rufus. Now this smooth young man had defected from Cicero to Clodius in the previous novel. Now Cicero meets him and realises he has fallen out with Clodius. Cicero discovers his affair with Clodia ended badly with her accusing him of trying to poison her.

Pompey lobbies for a bill giving him sole command of a commission to restore Auletes to power in Egypt. Crassus is so jealous he pays Clodius to launch a campaign to stop him. Meetings and speeches to the people are broken up in violence. Cicero is delighted because it heralds the end of the Triumvirate (105).

The Rufus strategem (pages 105 to 122)

Cicero learns Rufus is scheduled to prosecute Lucius Calpurnius Bestia for corruption. Bestia was a creature of Cataline’s and so a sworn enemy of Cicero’s but Cicero conceives a Machiavellian plan. First Cicero amazes everyone by volunteering to defend Bestia, does a great job and gets him off. Irritated, Rufus issues another write against Bestia. Bestia comes to Cicero for advice. Cicero advises the best form of defence is attack; he should issue a counter-writ. More than that, he should meet with Clodius and Clodia and get them to join his case. They loathe Rufus. With them on his side Bestia can’t lose. Delighted, Bestia goes away, meets with Clodius, and issues a writ against Rufus accusing him of a) murdering the Egyptian envoys b) poisoning Clodia (110).

Cicero chuckles. His plan is working. He takes a puzzled Tiro on a visit to Rufus and finds him disconsolate: just the accusation means his budding career as a lawyer is in tatters. To Rufus’s amazement Cicero offers to be his defence counsel. Neither Rufus nor Tiro understand what is going on.

First day of the trial passes without Cicero’s intervention. Clodius is one of the three prosecutors. He depicts his sister (Clodia) as the innocent victim of a cruel libertine (Rufus). On the second day Cicero takes to the stage (trials were held on raised platforms in the Forum) and proceeds to lay into Clodia with unparalleled fury and accuracy, describing her as a whore, a courtesan, Medea, hinting at her incest with her brother, depicting her as having countless lovers, depicting him as the sensual immoral seducer of a boy half her age (Rufus) and she the daughter of an infamous, merciless, crime-stained, lust-stained house. Clodius is infuriated, Clodia sits motionless. Cicero eviscerates her in front of a cheering Roman audience who end up pointing their fingers at her and chanting ‘Whore, whore, whore.’ It is said she never went out in public again (122).

And this entire elaborate scam? Revenge for Clodia having his wife, Terentia, whipped. Cicero presents the result to his wife as a gift and atonement for her sufferings during his exile.

Cicero makes one more intervention in politics. Next day he speaks in the Senate to the bill to assign 20 million sestercii to Pompey for his grain commission but he uses the opportunity to ask whether they should reconsider the land reform legislation Caesar passed before he left for Gaul. This pleases the anti-Caesarians but infuriates his supporters, not least Crassus (125).

He makes an evening visit to Pompey’s villa outside Rome, politely greeting the great generals’ beautiful young wife. Pompey tut tuts over Cicero’s speech against the land reform but Cicero goes on the offensive saying Crassus’s insensate jealousy of Pompey is far more dangerous than anything he, Cicero, can say. Pompey agrees. Cicero comes away well pleased at his work undermining the unity of the anti-republican triumvirate (130).

Tired, Cicero takes a holiday at Cumae, in a villa left to him by a rich tax collector he did some legal work for (126). They notice it’s surprisingly empty for the time of year (132). Then dusty soldiers approach. Scared, they receive them and they turn out to be envoys from Luca.

After Cicero’s disruptive speech, Crassus went to see Caesar and they then summoned Pompey to what turned into the Conference of Luca, designed to shore up the Triumvirate. Now this soldier has brought an ultimatum to Cicero. He must shut up. He must stop criticising the triumvirs. He must reverse his position and support the land reform.

And astonishes him by telling him Pompey and Clodius have been publicly reconciled. Crassus and Pompey are going to stand for election as consuls. If they stood in the summer they would fail. But the elections will be delayed because of the escalating violence Clodius will provide. By the time it’s safe enough to hold election in the winter, campaigning season in Gaul will be over and Caesar will send thousands of his soldiers to vote for Pompey and Crassus. When they have finished their year as consuls they will be awarded provinces, Pompey to Spain, Crassus Syria. These commands will be for five years, and Caesar’s command in Gaul will also be extended.

Altogether these plans are known as the Luca Accords (136). If Cicero doesn’t support them, bad things will happen to him. After the soldiers leave Cicero is shaken but furious with Pompey. Can’t he see he is being turned into Caesar’s dupe? He is securing Caesar the few more years he needs to thoroughly subjugate and pillage Gaul and then, when he’s done, Caesar will return to Rome and dispense with Pompey.

But Terentia intervenes. She is fed up with Cicero thinking he and he alone must save the Republic. There are hundreds of other senators and ex-consuls. Let them do something about it for a change. Cicero knows he is right. After this ultimatum from the three most powerful men in Rome he realises his time is up. He should back away from active politics (139).

Vivid description of Cato the Younger returning from two years as governor of Cyprus with vast wealth (140). He is shocked at the Senate’s obeisance before the Triumvirate and at Cicero’s pessimism. From now on Cato becomes the leader of the opposition to Caesar (143). Cicero kowtows. In the Senate he humiliatingly withdraws his suggestion that Caesar’s land reform be reviewed – and receives a letter of thanks from Caesar (146).

(150-154) Portrait of Crassus as he prepares to set off on his military campaign against the Parthian Empire. He is only interested in looting everywhere and amassing as much money as possible. It is unpopular with the people. Cato makes speeches against it, declaring it immoral to commence a war against a nation Rome has treaties with. But when Crassus asks for Cicero’s support the latter is happy to invite him and his wife round for supper and pledge his heartfelt support. Anything to appease the Triumvirate and get them off his back. Tiro notes the slack, dilettantish behaviour of the officers who accompany Crassus, a sharp contrast with the whip-smart and efficient officers who surround Caesar. (This is all by way of being anticipation of Crassus’s disastrous defeats and miserable death in Syria the following year).

Over the next 3 years Cicero writes and rewrites the first of his works, On the Republic. Harris has Tiro give a useful summary (p.156):

  • politics is the most noble of callings
  • there is no nobler motive for entering public life than the resolution not to be ruled by wicked men
  • no individual or combination of individuals should be allowed to become too powerful
  • politics is a profession not a pastime for dilettantes
  • a statesman should devote his life to studying the science of politics in order to acquire all the knowledge that is necessary
  • that authority in a state must always be divided
  • that of the three known forms of government – monarchy, aristocracy and people – the optimum is a combination of all three, since kings can be capricious, an aristocracy self-interested, and an uncontrolled multitude is a mob

Tiro has a severe fever during which Cicero promises to finally make him free – description of Tiro’s manumission

Crassus is killed at Carrhae – Harris chooses to quote Cassius’s long message as read out by Pompey to the assembled senators

detailed description of the affray which leads to the murder of Clodius – Cicero defends Milo at his trial but can’t be heard above the barracking (p.194)

Cicero is forced to go serve as governor of Cilicia as the political situation in Rome intensifies. Tiro doesn’t want to go but Cicero persuades him with the offer of buying him the farm he’s always wanted (p.198). Terentia wants him to play the traditional Roman governor and fleece the province for everything he can but Cicero knows this will play into the hands of his enemies as well as being against his temperament (202).

En route to take ship at Brundisium, the party is invited to go stay with Pompey at his nearby villa. They discuss the political situation. With Crassus dead the triumvirate is now an unstable duumvirate. Because Caesar has now successfully conquered and pacified all of Gaul, the question becomes what to do about him. Caesar wants to stand for the consulship in absentia to ensure that he gets it and secures immunity from prosecution which the office provides (204).

In Athens discussion with Aristatus, leading exponent of Epicureanism (206). He argues that physical wellbeing, the avoidance of pain and stress, is all. But Cicero argues that physical illness and pain are unavoidable and so the Epicurean notion of ‘good’ is weak and vulnerable. A more robust notion of the Good is needed, namely the moral goodness of the Stoics which endures no matter what state our body is in. Which inspires Cicero to write a guide to the Good Life.

Harris skimps on Cicero’s governorship, giving a very brief account of the one military campaign he led, to besiege the capital of a rebellious tribe. He omits two aspects described in Cicero’s own letters, namely a) his difficult relationship with his predecessor who just happened to be a brother of his bitter (and dead) enemy, Clodius and b) his very real achievement of setting a ruined province back on its feet, reducing taxes, reviving trade and administering justice fairly. You can see that these nuts and bolts aspects of actual administrative work don’t fit the thriller template.

Before his governorship is quite over, Cicero packs and sets off back to Rome, accompanied by Tiro and his entourage. He detours via Rhodes to visit the tomb of his tutor in oratory, Apollonius Molo. However, the winds change and block them there. Finally they sail on to Corinth but Tiro is taken very ill and eventually cannot be moved. He is left in the care of a banker friend of Cicero’s who he was not to see again for 8 months.

So he is forced to watch from a distance as the Roman Republic collapses for it was in January of that year, 49 BC, that Caesar crossed the River Rubicon and sparked civil war against Pompey, the defender of the constitution and senate.

Harris uses a series of Cicero’s actual letters to describe events. Pompey panics, thinking Caesar has his entire army with him (whereas he only had one legion) and orders the authorities to evacuate Rome and head east, ultimately holing up in Brundisium before sailing for Greece.

Caesar just fails to stop him then, without ships of his own, is forced to march back to Rome. En route he stops off at Cicero’s house in Formiae and has a brief meeting. He asks him to come back to Rome, to address the senate supporting him. Cicero refuses. Caesar is angered but leaves.

Cicero realises he must throw in his lot with Pompey and heads back to Greece. Tiro travels from his sickhouse to rendezvous back in Thessalonika, the same house where he spent his exile. Everyone is miserable (226). Cicero talks to Pompey, attends meetings. 200 senators are there with their families and staffs, bickering and politicking.

Caesar finally secures a fleet and sends half his army to Dyrrachium. Pompey marches there and surrounds his camp. It settles down into trench warfare, with the soldiers yelling abuse at each other and the occasional outbreak of fraternisation. Defectors tell Pompey about a weak place in Caesar’s defences so he attacks there. In a confused fight it is generally thought Caesar lost. Next morning his fortifications are abandoned. He is marching east into Greece. Pompey resolves to chase him and also strikes camp. Cicero’s son, brother and nephew all march off, but he doesn’t like war and elects to stay in a villa near the now liberated town of Dyrrachium (249). Cato is put in charge of forces there.

It is here that, weeks later, rumours reach them of disaster. Then Labienus arrives in a terrible state having ridden for days from the disaster that was the Battle of Pharsalus, 9 August 48 BC (252).

The senators and leaders who stayed behind at Dyrrachium hold a meeting and resolve to fight on and rally the Pompeian forces at Corfu, an island and so defensible.

And so amid scenes of chaos and panic the Pompeian forces pack up and sail for Corfu. Here another summit meeting is held in the Temple of Jupiter. Cato proposes Cicero be their leader, but Cicero laughs out loud and says he is fit for nothing. In his opinion they should immediately sue for peace in order to end the bloodshed. Pompey’s son Gnaeus is incensed by Cicero’s defeatism and goes to stab him with a sword, only Cato’s restraining words prevent him and save Cicero’s life (259). Cato lets anyone who wants to, leave, so Cicero slowly rises and walks out:

out of the temple, out of the senatorial cause, out of the war and out of public life. (p.260)

In Patrae they are delighted to come across Cicero’s son, Marcus, his brother Quintus and young nephew, who all fought in the battle but survived (260). Cicero speaks tactlessly of the meeting of leaders he attended, ridiculing them and their cause, not realising how deeply it was offending these three men who put their lives at risk for the cause. This prompts a furious tirade from Quintus in which he expresses a lifetime of resentment at being forced to play second fiddle to his oh-so-clever brother and he and his son walk out (264).

Heart-broken at this family rupture, Cicero returns to Italy accompanied by Tiro who has been away three full years. They find the region round Brundisium controlled by a legate of Caesar’s, Publius Vatinius, who, however, Cicero defended in a trial and so is helpful (267). Cicero is given a villa under guard for his protection and only slowly realises that he is in fact under house arrest while Vatinius finds out what Caesar wants done with him.

Cicero and Tiro realise this is life under a dictatorship: no freedoms, no magistrates, no courts, no elections. One lives at the whim of the dictator.

Cicero’s heart sinks further when Vatinius tells him that while Caesar is absent on campaign, Italy is ruled by his Master of Horse (traditional post for second in command) Marcus Antonius. Cicero and Antonius have always had a distant relationship but there is an underlying animosity because Antonius’s stepfather, Publius Lentulus Sura, was one of the five Catiline conspirators Cicero had put to death in 63 BC (as described in detail in the previous novel in the series, Lustrum).

Depressing months of house arrest follow. Cicero is deeply upset by the rift with his beloved brother. All the news is of death, including that of Milo the gladiator and Cicero’s promising pupil, Marcus Caelius Rufus (269). Then they all hear news of the the miserable end of Pompey, treacherously stabbed as he went ashore in Egypt (270).

In the spring of 47 the news is that Caesar is still in Egypt with his alleged paramour, Cleopatra. Cicero is still stuck in Brundisium. His beloved daughter Tullia makes the dangerous journey to visit him. Her husband, Dolabella, now ignores her completely and has affairs. Worse, Tullia brings news that his wife, Terentia, has been conspiring with her steward Philotimus, to plunder his estate and belongings for years. Cicero’s private life is in ruins.

Then a letter comes from Caesar, no less, announcing he is returning to Italy and will come to visit Cicero. Soon afterwards Cicero is summoned to meet the dictator at Tarentum. Cicero is rising there with an entourage of cavalry and lictors when they encounter the huge column of Caesar’s army. The dictator dismounts from his horse, greets Cicero and walks with him.

It is a perfectly genial conversation. Cicero asks to be relieved of the damned lictors who still accompany him everywhere because he still, legally, is governor of Cilicia, but are a damned inconvenience. Caesar agrees on the spot. But shouldn’t that take a vote in the senate? Caesar replies: ‘I am the senate’. Caesar politely says he isn’t sure he wants Cicero back in Rome making speeches against him. Cicero assures him that he has utterly retired from politics. He intends to devote his life to studying and writing philosophy. Caesar is pleased. Then Harris has Cicero ask one of the Great Questions of History: Did Caesar always aim at this outcome, a dictatorship? No, is Caesar’s swift reply.

‘Never! I sought only the respect due my rank and my achievements. For the rest, one merely adapts to the circumstances as they arise.’ (p.281)

The thoughtful reader reels at the impact of these words, on the light they shed on the real processes of history, and this encounter makes you review everything, the long complex violent sequence of events which has led to the collapse of the Roman Republic and Cicero’s hectic chequered career which has brought the two men to this encounter on a dusty road amid a huge entourage of battle hardened soldiers. Then Caesar mounts his horse and gallops off (282).

Part two – Redux (47 to 43 BC)

They head back to Rome but Cicero decides to stop and live outside the city, at his country house at Tusculum (287). Description of the house. Here he settles down to translate the best of Greek philosophy into Latin (289). He starts with a history of oratory he called the Brutus and dedicated to him, though the dedicatee didn’t like it (290).

He divorces Terentia (286). They still have much in common but she’s been robbing him blind, stripping his properties of their furnishings and selling them off.

Cicero gives oratory lessons to Caesar’s exquisite lieutenant Aulus Hirtius (who is rumoured to have written many of the commentaries on the Gallic War) (291). He is soon joined by Gaius Vibius Pansa and Cassius Longinus as pupils of Cicero (292). Cassius admits that he regrets allowing himself to be pardoned by Caesar and confides in Cicero that he has already planned to assassinate Caesar (292).

Tullia’s errant husband Dolabella is back from fighting in Africa. He asks to come visit Cicero and Tullia. He tells them about the war in Africa, about Caesar’s great victory at Thrapsus, and about the hideous suicide of Cato (297). The deep impact on Cassius and Brutus, both of whom were related to Cato i.e. shame for having accepted Caesar’s pardon and living on under his dictatorship. Cicero writes a short eulogy to Cato (299).

Caesar holds four triumphs in a row and absurdly lavish games (300) but during one of them his chariot’s axle snaps and he’s thrown to the ground. Caesar’s clemency, forgiving errant senators (302). He pardons many of his enemies, notably Brutus, some said because Brutus was his son by his long-term mistress Servilia, herself half sister of Cato.

Cicero is forced to marry the totally unsuitable Publilia for money (Tiro reviews the three eligible i.e. rich candidates) (306). Description of the wedding including the disarmingly simple Roman marriage vow (‘Where you are Gaia, I am Gaius’) (308). After only a few weeks the marriage isn’t working (309).

His daughter Tullia comes to stay to bear the child she was impregnated with when Dolabella visited (she had been staying with her mother since the divorce). But she is ill with tuberculosis. She gives birth to a healthy boy (named Lentulus) but never recovers. Death bed scene, Cicero holds her hand, she dies peacefully in her sleep (312).

Stricken with grief, Cicero flees his young wife and hides himself away in a succession of friends’ houses and remote villas, writing a handbook of Greek philosophy about consolation (314). Eventually he divorces Publilia (315), and invites Tiro to join him in Tusculum where he sets about dictating the Tusculan Disputations (317). There are to be five books cast in the form of a dialogue between a philosopher and his student:

  1. On the fear of death
  2. On the endurance of pain
  3. On the alleviation of distress
  4. On the remaining disorders of the soul
  5. On the sufficiency of virtue for a happy life

One must train for death by leading a life that is morally good:

  • to desire nothing too much
  • to be content with what you have
  • to be entirely self sufficient within yourself so that whatever you lose, you can carry on regardless
  • to do no harm
  • to realise it is better to suffer an injury than inflict one
  • to acknowledge that life is a loan from nature which must be paid back at any time

‘Such were the lessons that Cicero had learned and wished to impart to the world’ (319).

Dolabella comes to visit. He is back from the war in Spain. He was badly injured. He asks to take possession of his son by Tullia, and Cicero agrees. Dolabella tells Cicero the fight in Spain was different from the other campaigns, more hard fought, more bitter. When Pompey’s son Gnaeus was killed in battle, Caesar had his head stuck on a lance (321). They took no prisoners. They killed 30,000 enemy i.e. Roman troops. Many of the enemies he pardoned after the earlier wars had fought against him. Caesar has returned a different man, angry and embittered.

Cicero continues turning out books at speed. Burying himself in Greek philosophy , reading, studying, dictating to Tiro, all help him manage his grief over Tullia’s death. He writes On the nature of the gods and On divination.

Caesar is a changed man, angrier, more controlling. His grasp on reality seems to have slipped. He writes a petty-minded riposte to Cicero’s eulogy of Cato. His infatuation with Cleopatra leads him to set up statues of her in Rome, including in temples. He has himself declared a god with his own priesthood (323). He announces a grandiose plan to take 36 legions (!) to the east to smash the Parthian Empire, march back round the Black Sea conquering all the territory, approach Germany from the East to conquer and pacify it. Basically, to conquer the whole world (323). Alexander the Great.

Cicero goes to stay on the Bay of Naples. On the Feast of Saturnalia he gives all his staff presents and finally, after years of prevaricating, gives Tiro the farm he’s always yearned for. It is described in idyllic terms but the thing that struck me was that is staffed by six slaves and an overseer. This doesn’t cause a bump or hesitation in the description by Tiro, the ex-slave (330).

Caesar sends a letter announcing he will drop by. Cicero is thrown into a panic and makes massive preparations. Caesar arrives with his entourage and cohorts of soldiers. Dinner conversation. Caesar flatters him by saying he enjoyed reading the Tusculan Disputations. This leads Cicero to ask Caesar whether he thinks his soul will survive his death. Caesar replies he doesn’t know about anyone else, but he knows that his soul will survive his death – because he is a god! Simples. Cicero concludes the intensity of his isolation, achievements and responsibility have driven him mad (328).

Caesar is made dictator for life. He has the seventh month of the year renamed July. He is given the title Emperor and Father of the Nation. He presides over the Senate from a golden throne. He has a statue of himself added to the seven statues of the ancient kings of Rome. Harris repeats the famous story that at the Lupercal festival Mark Antony repeatedly tries to crown Caesar with a laurel wreath, though the crowd boos (331).

Caesar plans to leave Rome on 18 March 44 BC to commence his huge campaign in the East. A meeting of the Senate is arranged for the 15th or Ides of March, to confirm the list of appointments to all the magistracies which Caesar has drawn up for the three years he intends to be away.

On the morning of the fifteenth Cicero and Tiro get up early and arrive at the Senate ahead of time. The meeting is being held in the theatre built by Pompey because the old Senate house still hasn’t been rebuilt after Clodius’s mob burned the old one down on the day of his funeral in 52.

Harris manages the tense build-up to one of the most famous events in Western history, the assassination of Julius Caesar very well. Tiro gives an eye witness account the main point of which is confusion and delay. Caesar was warned by a soothsayer and his wife’s bad dreams not to attend the session and so the assembled senators mill around increasingly impatient for hours. Eventually Caesar arrives having been cajoled into coming by Decimus Brutus, one of the conspirators.

Assassination of Caesar (338). Conspirators retreat to the Capitol Hill. Cicero meets them and is staggered that they have no plan (347). Instead of seizing power they expect the republic to magically reconstitute itself. Leaving this vacuum is their tragic mistake (353 and 368). Lepidus moves troops into Rome and takes control. The assassins address the crowd but don’t win them over:

A speech is a performance not a philosophical discourse: it must appeal to the emotions more than to the intellect. (p.349)

Meeting of the Senate at which Antony makes a commanding speech calling for compromise and amnesty for the assassins (358). Several sessions of the Senate trying to reconcile the parties. Nervously the assassins agree to come off the hill and negotiate with Antony, the serving consul after both sides have given hostages (as in The Gallic Wars, the only mechanism for gaining trust between chronically suspicious partners.)

So Caesar’s assassins and supporters sit in a further session of the Senate, which agrees to keep magistrates in place, Caesar’s laws unaltered, then agrees with Antony’s suggestion that Caesar’s will is opened and read publicly (364).

The big surprise of Caesar’s will, that he leaves three-quarters of his estate to his nephew Octavianus, who he legally adopts and is to be named Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (367).

Five days after the assassination there is a grand funeral for Caesar, complete with elaborate cortege. Tiro thinks it was stage managed by Fulvia, Antony’s venomous wife. It climaxes with Antony’s speech to the crowd in which he drops all pretence at reconciliation and says Caesar was cruelly murdered by cowards (370). Antony displays Caesar’s corpse and then says he left the people 300 sestercii each in his will to inflames the crowd. When the pyre is lit the crowd go mad, tear off their clothes and throw them in, loot nearby shops and chuck furniture on. Then go rampaging through the streets attacking the houses of the assassins. They tear Helvius Cinna the poet to pieces under the misapprehension he is Cinna the conspirator (372). The assassins leave Rome.

Cicero flees Rome and devotes himself to writing, producing in feverish outburst the books On auguriesOn fateOn glory, and begun sketching On Friendship (375). Visitors from Rome bring stories of Antony’s high handed behaviour.

One day Cornelius turns up with a short skinny kid with pimples. This is the famous Octavian who is staying with neighbours (there is ambiguity about his name so Harris gets the boy himself to tell everyone he wants to be referred to as Octavian, p.377). Octavian butters Cicero up and seeks his advice. He has no small talk. He is a logical machine.

An extended dinner party at which Octavian’s father, advisors, some of Caesar’s senior officers and Cicero discuss what he should do. Cicero is blunt. Go to Rome, claim your inheritance and stand for office. He tells Tiro he doesn’t think the boy stands a chance but his presence will undermine Antony.

Cicero sends Tiro to attend the next meeting of the Senate (he is too concerned for his own safety to go). Tiro witnesses Antony award himself the command of Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul for five years and arrange other allies in positions of power. Octavian is nowhere to be seen. He visits Cicero’s son-in-law Dolabella. Cicero wants the dowry which accompanied Tullia back. Instead Dolabella gives him a document which assigns Cicero as Dolabella’s legate in Syria. He doesn’t have to do anything but it gives him the legal right to travel and Greece and immunity for 5 years (385).

Cicero and Tiro travel to Brutus’s family home at Antium to discuss what the leading assassins should do. Brutus’s mother Servilia is disgusted at the thought her son will be merely handed on of Pompey’s grain commissioners, but Cicero advises Brutus and Cassius to take these posts and wait on events (388). But the real point is the assassins are falling out among themselves and have no plan.

Cicero moves on to another of his properties. He is working simultaneously on three books, On friendshipOn duties and On virtues (391). Reluctantly Tiro decides it is time to quit Cicero and go live on that farm. He is 60. Cicero accepts it calmly and returns to his work. Tiro’s farm (393). Nonetheless, he still frequents spas and there overhears gossip about Rome, opposition to Antony.

He meets again Agathe, the slave girl he paid to have liberated but never to to see again. With her freedom she worked, saved money and bought the spa where Tiro has bumped into her (398). [Right at the end of the narrative we are told her full name is Agathe Licinia and she owns the baths of Venus Libertina at Baiae, p.488).

Cicero comes to visit him on the farm. Antony is failing, and Brutus and Cassius have determined to revive the opposition. He is energised and going back to Rome to throw himself back into the fray. His daughter’s dead, he’s divorced from his wife, he has nothing to lose. He doesn’t mean to but Cicero is so charismatic that…he lures Tiro back into his service (402).

It takes them 8 days to travel to Rome. The roads are dangerous. Gangs of Caesar’s demobbed soldiers roam the countryside, stealing, killing, burning. People are terrified. Once in Rome Cicero attends the next sitting of the Senate and makes a speech against the corruption and distortion of the law by Antony. This becomes known as the First Phillippic, in a jokey reference to the speeches Demosthenes delivered against the Macedonian tyrant, Philip II (411).

Antony replies with an excoriating speech to the Senate dragging up every disreputable scrap he can about Cicero, and highlighting his flip-flopping support for great men as signs of a self-seeking sycophant (412).

It is December 44 BC. The military situation is chaotic. There are no fewer than seven armies with different leaders (413). Octavian’s army occupies Rome. Antony is in Brundisium trying to bribe legions returned from Macedonia into supporting him. Octavian makes a speech about calling his adoptive father the greatest Roman, to applause from the crowd. He leaves Rome, Antony exits it but then has to speed to one of his legions which Octavian has bribed away. Chaos.

Cicero’s second Philippic against Antony, packed with scurrilous gossip and accusations of corruption (418). Cicero explains his position to Tiro and Atticus: Antony is the enemy, ‘a monstrous and savage animal’ (432), often drunk dictator in the making. Octavian, with the name of Caesar and many of his legions, is the only force which can stop Antony. Atticus wisely asks whether Octavian will not himself then become dictator. But Cicero naively thinks that he can control and steer the young man, in order to restore the Republic (421).

Cicero meets Octavian at one of Atticus’s houses by Lake Volsinii. Harris is in his element. He imagines the power plays and negotiations. Octavian agrees to be guided by the Senate if Cicero persuades the Senate to give him imperium and legal authority to fight Antony (426).

Antony has marched with his legions to besiege Decimus Brutus, governor of Cisapline Gaul, in the town of Mutena. Brutus remains loyal to the state and Senate, so Antony is clearly everyone’s enemy. Cicero makes a big speech in the Senate claiming the state is being rescued by the boy Octavian. This speech became known as the Third Philippic (430). When he goes out to repeat it to the people in the Forum he is drowned by cheers.

BUT when the Senate meets early in January 43 Cicero is shocked when both new consuls (Hirtius and Pansa) and other senators reject his criticism of Antony and hope peace can still be negotiated. Next day Cicero makes the speech of his life, the Fifth Philippic in which he scorns any peace overtures to Antony, proposes he be declared an enemy of the state, and that Octavian be given full official backing (438).

But the next day Antony’s wife and mother are presented in the Senate. If Antony is declared an enemy of the state, his property will be confiscated and they will be thrown out on the streets. To Cicero’s disgust this moderates the Senate’s decision from open war down to sending peace envoys.

A month later the peace envoys return from Mutena, where Antony is besieging Decimus. Antony refused all their proposals and made his own counter-proposals including 5 years command of Further Gaul. Once again a debate in the Senate where Antony’s friends and relations sway things. Once again Cicero rises the following day to utterly condemn Antony as the instigator of war. As Cato was Caesar’s inveterate enemy, so Cicero has made himself Antony’s.

The two consuls lead a conscript army off to face Antony in the north. The leading magistrate left in Rome, the urban praetor Marcus Cornutus, is inexperienced and turns to Cicero for advice. Thus at the age of 63 he becomes the most powerful man in the city, dictator in all but name.

It takes a while for despatches to return from the north and when they do they initially tell of a great defeat of Antony. Cicero is triumphant. It is the most successful day of his life. But then further despatches reveal that not one but both consuls were killed in the Battle of Mutena. Then Decomus Brutus reveals that his weakened army allowed Antony to flee with his over the Alps.

Worst of all, word has got to Octavian of some casual slighting remarks of Cicero’s. Octavian warns he is not prepared to be subordinate to Decimus, as the Senate ordered. Since there are 2 vacancies for consul, why can he not be made one? (He is only 19; the lower age limit for the consulship is meant to be 43.)

In May 43 Antony and his army arrived at the base of Lepidus, who was meant to be holding Gaul for the Senate. Instead he goes over to Antony. He claims his troops mutinied and wanted to join Antony’s.

When official news reaches the Senate Cicero is called on to make a speech summarising the situation. This is that Antony, far from being extinguished, is more powerful than ever. Deep groans from the senators. To Cicero’s horror the traditionalist Isauricus announces that he has swung his power and influence behind Octavian, and offered him his daughter’s hand in marriage, and proposes that Octavian be allowed to stand as consul in absentia. In other words, Octavian has dropped Cicero. In his shock, Cicero gives a speech crystallising his political beliefs in a nutshell:

That the Roman Republic, with its division of powers, its annual free elections for every magistracy, its law courts and its juries, its balance between Senate and people, its liberty of speech and thought, is mankind’s noblest creation (p.475)

And goes on to say that, for this reason, he thinks Octavian should not be awarded the consulship. It’s precisely this kind of bending of the rules which brought them the rule of Pompey, then Caesar. This speech places Cicero, for the first time, directly against Octavian’s wishes.

Crucially, he points out to the Senate that even if Lepidus goes over to Antony and Octavian is of increasingly uncertain loyalty, they can call on the legions commanded by Brutus in Syria and Cassius in Macedon. The point is that, without realising it, Cicero is creating the conditions under which Octavian and Antony will unite as the Caesarian party and declare war on the army of the assassins.

At the end of the new month of ‘July’ they learn that Octavian has struck camp, crossed the Rubicon with his army and is marching on Rome. Cicero had repeatedly assured the Senate of Octavian’s good intentions. Now he looks naive at best, Octavian’s tool at worst (476).

Legions arrive from Africa and Cornutus assures they will be loyal. But when Cicero goes to address them they remain resolutely silent. What do his fancy words about ‘liberty’ mean to them? They want money (480).

Next day the African legions mutiny and join Octavian’s. Cornutus kills himself in shame. Octavian’s troops now occupy Rome. Cicero contemplates suicide, but goes to see him. Their relationship has completely changed. Octavian tells Cicero he has organised to have the consulship, and who his fellow consul will be, an obscure relative who will be a puppet. Soon he will go to meet Antony and Lepidus. He recommends Cicero leaves Rome. Go to Greece and write philosophy. He won’t be allowed to return without permission. Don’t write anything against Octavian. Octavian is the new dictator (483).

Broken in spirit, all his hopes crushed, Cicero retreats to his country villa at Tusculum (485). They hear Octavian has set up a special court to try Caesar’s assassins. Then that he has left Rome with 11 legions, marching to confront Antony.

A month goes by and he conceives the idea of collecting all his letters. Tiro has kept all of them. He unpacks them. Cicero has them read out in chronological order. His whole hectic public and private life. He is fully aware that they amount to:

the most complete record of an historical era ever assembled by a leading statesman. (p.487)

So he instructs Tiro to assemble his letters in the right order, then make several complete copies to be hidden and preserved. Atticus, always keen to ingratiate himself with everyone, averse to all risk, insists that all his letters to Cicero are burned, burns them with his own hands. But copies of the rest are made and Tiro sends his copies down to his farm to be hidden for posterity.

At the end of November 43 Cicero sends Tiro into Rome to recover the last of his papers from his properties. That night there is screaming in the streets. Tiro learns the devastating news that Antony, Octavian and Lepidus have joined forces to create a Second Triumvirate. They have published a list of hundreds of senators and knights who have been proscribed: their properties are to be confiscated and a bounty of 100,000 sesterces on their heads. Both Marcus and Quintus Cicero are on the list (490).

Panic, pandemonium, the city at night is full of death gangs seeking out the proscribed men in order to kill them, cut off their heads, and present them to the auditors. In mad haste, Tiro tells the remaining slaves in Cicero’s houses to flee, scribbles a message to be taken by courier to Cicero at Tusculum telling him to flee to his villa on the small island of Astura, then follows in a carriage.

It’s several days before Marcus and Quintus arrive on the shore. It’s the depths of winter, it’s raining, they look bedraggled. Tiro had a slave go and hire a boat in nearby Antium to carry them down the coast and abroad, but Quintus refuses to get in it.

They spend a miserable night in the little house on the island. Cicero elaborates on what happened: Octavian, Antony and Lepidus have met in Bononia and struck a deal to divide the empire between them. They’ve agreed to fund their armies by the simple expedient of killing the richest 2,000 men in the republic and seizing their property. To vouch for their good intentions they each agreed to include in the list someone dear to them: Antony his uncle, Lucius Caesar; Lepidus his own brother; and Octavian, after several days of holding out, Cicero, his former mentor and adviser (494).

They set off by ship but the seas and the winds are against them. Ten men are rowing the ship but it makes almost no headway. They put into a cove, beach the ship and try to shelter from the elements under the sails. Misery.

Next morning Tiro wakes to find Cicero gone. There is a path up from the beach. Tiro finds Cicero wandering along it, distracted. He tells Tiro he plans to head back to Rome to kill himself on Octavian’s doorstep. He’ll die of the shame. No he won’t, says Tiro. Cicero will just be captured and tortured to death, then decapitated. Reluctantly Cicero turns and returns with him to the beach.

They all embark back in the ship and set off rowing again. But it is hard going, the wind against them, the seas heavy. Cicero recognises the headland of Caieta and knows he has a house nearby. He insists they dock at a small jetty. Tiro checks the villa hasn’t been occupied by soldiers or death squads but it appears untouched so he sends slaves to fetch Cicero from the beach and tells the housekeeper to light fires and prepare a bath.

They sleep deeply but are wakened next morning by a slave saying soldiers are coming. Cicero insists on having a bath and dressing formally. Only then will he enter the litter Tiro has arranged and is being carried down to the sea to board the ship when they are cut off by a dozen legionaries. The slaves turn about face and carry the litter hastily back up the path but are met by more legionaries.

The tribune leading the soldiers turns out to be one Caius Popillius Laenas. By a supreme irony he was one of Cicero’s first clients in law. He defended him against a charge of parricide when he was a measly 15 year old and got him acquitted on condition he join the army. Oh the irony (which Harris appears to havey confected; none of this is in the historical accounts I’ve read).

Popollius orders the centurion under him to execute Cicero. Cicero is utterly resigned and insists they do it while he lies back on the litter, assuming the position of a defeated gladiator. And so with one stroke of his sword the centurion cuts off the head which composed some of the greatest speeches and works of literature in the Latin language. Little good they all did him in the end.

They then chop off his hands and put them all in a basket and depart. Tiro hears Antony was so delighted by the hands he gave Popillius a bonus of a million sestercii. Antony had Cicero’s head and hands nailed to the public rostra as a warning to anyone else who opposed the triumvirate. It is said that Antony’s wife, Flavia, who hated Cicero, stuck needles through his witty tongue (502).

Tiro and the slaves carry Cicero’s body down to the beach and burn it on a pyre. Then he headed south to his farm. Quintus and his son were caught and executed. Atticus was spared because he had helped Fulvia when anti-Antony feeling was at its height.

All the loose ends are neatly tied up and Harris gives Tiro the briefest of spaces, just one page, to reflect on the extraordinary life he has described and the epic times it sheds light on.

My work is done. My book is finished. Soon I will die too. (p.503)

The Victorians achieved moving literary effects by writing too much. Modern writers strive for the same emotional impact by writing too little.

It is a moving and emotional end because Cicero’s life itself was so awesome and his end so wretched. The facts themselves are very moving for the reader who has accompanied Cicero this far, however. Harris’s treatment is a little disappointing. He winds up the narrative by telling us that Tiro marries that slave girl he freed all those years ago, Agath,e and they often spend the evenings together reminiscing. Sounds like a Disney movie or the Waltons.

And he quotes the passage from Cicero’s work, The Dream of Scipio, where Cicero tells the statesman to look down from the vast heavens on the insignificant earth and dismiss the petty activities of humans.

Ah, but that’s what politicians all say when their careers are over. Contrary to all Cicero’s preaching in his literary works, the consolations of philosophy are feeble compared with the full-blooded excitement of action.

Key words

Politics

As I made abundantly clear in my reviews of the first two books, these are novels about politics, not in the broad theoretical sense, but in the narrow sense of the day to day scrabble to win and then maintain positions of power in the state. One of the many pleasures of the previous books is the way Harris has characters state sententiae – maxims or sayings about politics – which are perfectly meaningful in their context but framed in such a way as to be widely applicable to any time and place, including our own.

  • There is always this to be said of politics: it is never static. (p.51)
  • ‘Nothing in politics can be planned in advance for seven years.’ (p.137)
  • It is the most important rule in politics always to keep things moving. (p.433)

But having got into the habit of writing out all the apothegms in all three books made me realise there are far, far fewer uses of the word, and hardly any zingy apothegms about it in this one.

Power

I think the word ‘politics’, central to the previous two novels, is superseded in this one by use of the word ‘power’, signifying a shift in subject and in historical events. With the advent of the Triumvirate the time for petty politics passes and is replaced by the more naked manipulation of power.

And then, possibly, the word ‘power’ is itself superseded half-way through the book by ‘war’. And neither Cicero nor Tiro can make casual, knowing generalisations about war since neither of them are soldiers.

It’s a subtle, lexical indication of the way the focus of a novel supposedly about Cicero shifts its emphasis, spreads it more widely, in this novel. Well before the end of part one the energy centre of the narrative, as of Cicero’s world, has shifted to Caesar. Caesar is the true protagonist and Cicero an increasingly passive cork floating on the huge ocean of disruption and war he causes.

With the outbreak of civil war Cicero – and the text – become increasingly reliant on letters and third person accounts of events scattered all round the known world (Greece, Egypt, Spain).

And then, after the assassination of Caesar, not only all the characters but the narrative itself feels adrift. Retreating to the country, Cicero tries to make sense of the fast-moving series of events where no-one is in control, certainly not the assassins, but not Mark Antony either.

It’s in this chaos that slowly emerges from the confusions of the narrative the cold-eyed, steely determination of young Octavian who is to astonish the world by mastering the chaos created by his elders. Initially Octavian is keen to meet Cicero, ask his advice, when he departs with his army keeps in touch by letter. But when he hears about Cicero’s fateful slighting remark, he goes ominously silent. No letters, no replies, no despatches.

Octavian’s silences signal the text’s final abandonment of Cicero. Tiro’s narrative continues to focus on Cicero’s activities and attitudes but the narrative has moved through three key words – politics, power, war – and the final buzzword is nothing, nothingness.

The authorities in Rome hear nothing about Antony for months, Cicero hears nothing from Octavian for months. But in this ominous silence they are cooking up the Second Triumvirate, which will seize power and unleash an army of assassins whose aim is the end of all words. The end of Cicero. The end of the text.

The law

A little into this one I realised I’d been missing the importance of an obvious subject, the law. Cicero was first and foremost a lawyer. He made his name with the Verres case (described in great detail in part one of Imperium). Even when he ducked out of politics he continued to advocate cases in the courts. And what comes over very loudly is that in ancient Rome the law had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with fancy notions of ‘Justice’ but was entirely a tool of political manipulation, attack and revenge.

Trials in ancient Rome were wildly different from modern trials. They involved a jury of scores, sometimes hundreds (75 jurors were sworn in for the trial of Rufus, p.116), were conducted in the open air with the Roman crowd watching, sometimes in their thousands. Speeches were astonishingly ad hominem, not only dishing up all kinds of dirt on the accused and witnesses but also on the opposing advocates, who were often accused of the most grotesque crimes themselves.

Above all, cases could descend into violence as the onlookers behaved more like a football crowd than the limited number of public allowed into a modern court, and started yelling or applauding or booing, or sometimes throwing things, and sometimes invading the platform where the trial was being conducted.

So much highfalutin’, self-serving rhetoric surrounds the practice of the law but the Roman reality was obvious a shambles. Harris has Cicero tell Rufus:

‘My dear Rufus, have you learned nothing? There is no more honour in a legal dispute than there is in a wrestling match.’ (p.108)

War atrocities

As always, I am appalled at the gross violence, war crimes and atrocities carried out by the Roman army:

  • Dyrrachium is still recovering from the fate ordained by the Senate in the 150s, namely razed to the ground and its entire population of 150,000 sold into slavery
  • Harris makes room for a scene in which Tiro reads through Caesar’s Commentaries on his Gallic Wars and works out that by Caesar’s own account, he has been responsible for the deaths of over 300,000 Gauls and Germans in just one campaigning season (p.45)
  • Metellus Nepos reads out a despatch from Caesar to the senate in which the great man admits that of the 65,000 strong army of the Nervii only 500 were left alive (p.70)
  • Caesar’s lieutenant wins a great naval battle against the Celts, has their leaders executed and their entire nation sold into slavery. (p.147)
  • Caesar lures 430,000 members of the Usipetes and Tencteri tribes across the Rhine and then annihilates them. (p.148)

It is notable that the only member of the entire ruling class who protests against this behaviour is Cato, who makes a speech in the senate saying Caesar should be declared a war criminal, removed from his command and prosecuted. His suggestion is shouted down.

Even Cicero does’t care that much about these atrocities. But Tiro does. Harris has Tiro dwell on them with horror and this confirms for me, not that Tiro is a sensitive soul, but that he is the representative of the modern liberal consciousness in the novel. Tiro would be a more interesting character if he were either malicious or unreliable. Instead he is the simplest kind of narrator possible, the loyal friend of the protagonist who reports everything he sees with utter honesty. And is as appalled as a Guardian editorial by violence and war.

Family ties

  • The stern republican Brutus was the nephew of the stern moralist Marcus Portius Cato (140).
  • Julius Caesar married off his daughter Julia to Pompey.
  • Mark Antony was the stepson of Publius Lentulus Sura, one of the five Catiline conspirators Cicero had put to death. One among many sources of enmity between the two men.
  • Cassius Longinus was married to Brutus’s sister.
  • Domitius Ahenobarbus was married to Cato’s sister.
  • The consul Marcus Philippus was married to Caesar’s niece (142).
  • Octavian was Caesar’s great-nephew.

Dated diction

In my review of Lustrum I mentioned the way the thriller, as a genre, uses stereotypical characters, situations and language to guarantee an enjoyable read. The characters and events may be unpleasant (betrayal, murder etc) but the shape and feel of the incidents is almost always super-familiar and, in a paradoxical way, despite being superficially unpleasant, at a deeper level, cognitively reassuring.

I meant to mention something else I noticed, which is that Harris’s characters often speak like characters from a 1950s British movie. I mean they use a reassuringly old fashioned and very pukka diction.

Some of the reviewers suggest Harris has rewritten Roman history for our times, and insofar as his narrative focuses on cynical abuses of political power that may be true. But I was struck by how very 1950s the language of a lot of the characters is. They often reminded me of characters from Ealing Comedies or the St Trinian’s movies.

It first struck me when Cicero talks about one of the other characters as ‘not being such a bad fellow’.  From then on I noticed this 1950s upper-middle class professional register.

‘Very well, young man, that’s enough’ (p.29).

On page 107 Tiro refers to Bestia as ‘the old rogue’. Who uses the word ‘rogue’ any more unless they’re talking about the Star Wars movie Rogue One or a ‘rogue state’ or maybe describing a ‘loveable rogue’ in a review of a movie?

Bestia had with him ‘his son Atratinus, a clever lad’.

When characters address each other they’re likely to say things like, ‘My dear Rufus…’ or ‘My dear, poor boy…’ Atticus speaks with the overemphasis typical of the English upper-middle classes: ‘Tiro, my dear fellow, thank you so much for taking care of my old friend so devotedly‘ (p.113). And:

  • ‘What an utter villain that fellow is.’ (Cicero about Crassus, p.154)
  • ‘The man’s ingratitude is unbelievable!’ (Milo on Pompey, p.178)
  • ‘I am delighted to meet you! My wife has always talked of you most fondly.’ (Dolabella to Tiro, p.296)

Now you could argue that the dialogue is a bit old fogeyish as part of a broader authorial strategy by which Tiro’s language as a whole has a definite oldster tinge, like the pages of an old paperback which have yellowed with age.

I slept, and very deeply despite my anxieties, for such was my exhaustion… (p.499)

Not ‘because I was so exhausted’ but ‘such was my exhaustion’. It’s not exactly Victorian or really old diction and it’s not dominant in every sentence; but at moments when he has a choice, Harris always chooses the more old-fashioned, stiffer phrase.

Presumably this dated tinge is a conscious effort. I can see it has two intentions: one is to subtly convey that this is a 2,000 year old document describing a lost world. It is meant to feel, not archaic exactly, but slightly dated, in order to convey its pastness.

The other, more obvious motivation, is that the narrator is 100 years old. Tiro is an oldster. So of course his turn of phrase would be dated, even in his own time. When you ponder that fact, you could argue that the phrasing throughout the book is not dated enough.

But at the end of the day this is not a literary work, but a popular novel, a historical thriller and its default prose style is the crisp, factual manner of the thriller and most literary effects are clinically dispensed with in order to achieve its strong, direct, intelligent but simple impact.

Scraps

Cicero tells Tiro that Cato is the only one of them who clearly sees they they’re on the road to ruin (p.149).

Tiro the slave (p.20). His (sketchy) thoughts about slavery (p.226).

Caesar is like a whirlpool (p.147).


Credit

Dictator by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson books in 2015. All references are to the 2016 Arrow paperback edition.

The Cicero trilogy

Robert Harris reviews

Roman reviews

Lustrum by Robert Harris (2009)

The senate was not the arena for brute force. The weapons here were words, and no one ever knew how to deploy words as well as Cicero. (p.184)

‘What are the only weapons I possess, Tiro?’ he asked me, and then he answered his own question. ‘These,’ he said, gesturing towards his books. ‘Words. Caesar and Pompey have their soldiers, Crassus his wealth, Clodius his bullies on the street. My only legions are my words. By language I rose and by language I shall survive.’ (p.402)

This is the middle novel in the Robert Harris’s ‘Cicero trilogy’. Harris is a highly successful writer of intelligent thrillers and in the Cicero trilogy he has applied the style and mentality of a modern thriller to the life of the Roman lawyer and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 to 43 BC) with great success.

Cicero is an excellent historical figure to dramatise for at least two reasons.

1. We know more about Cicero than any other figure from the ancient world. a) He wrote a prodigious amount, not only his speeches as an advocate but books about oratory, philosophy, politics and morality, most of which have survived. when he writes about Cicero, Harris has an unprecedented amount of primary source material to refer to. b) The extraordinary survival of some 1,000 letters from and to him, many from the leading figures of the day such as Julius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompeius, Marcus Junius Brutus, Marcus Antonius, Gaius Octavius and others. Harris says as much in his Author’s Note, where he says he’s used, where possible, Cicero’s own words from letters or speeches (for example Cicero’s lament at feeling lonely after his brother and best friend both leave Rome, page 344, which is, I think, a direct quote from one of Cicero’s letters).

2. The second reason is that Cicero was right at the heart of the web of allegiances and alliances which made up the toxic politics of the last decades of the Roman Republic. He was consul at the time of the Cataline conspiracy, he was important enough to be invited to join the first triumvirate in 60; when Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49, Cicero was one of the half dozen figures in Rome whose opinion he really valued. In the aftermath of Caesar’s assassination Cicero advised the killers and, after they were defeated, he became a sort of mentor to Caesar’s heir, young Octavian and a bitter opponent of Mark Antony.

No other figure was as central to the high politics of the age or left such an extensive documentary record.

Tiro the narrator

As I thoroughly explained in my review of the first novel in the trilogy, Imperium, the novels are narrated by Cicero’s slave and private secretary Tiro, a real-life figure who Cicero devoted several letters to praising and thanking and who we know was responsible for editing and publishing Cicero’s letters after his death.

I had been his secretary for sixteen years by this time and there was no aspect of his life, public or private, with which I was not familiar. (p.13)

In other words, Tiro is the perfect person for a narrator, the amanuensis and secretary to Cicero, observer and analyst of his behaviour as Dr Watson is to Sherlock Holmes.

The premise of all three books is that Tiro is writing his memoirs long, long after the events he recounts, just a few years before the start of the Christian era and Tiro is a very old man of nearly 100. The three novels are represented as the memories of this old man, looking back at particularly high points in the life of his lord and master, as he himself witnessed and recorded them at the time.

Two parts

The first novel was in two parts. Part one, ‘Senator (79 to 70 BC)’, led up to Cicero’s career-making prosecution of a corrupt Roman governor, Gaius Verres. Part two, ‘Praetorian (68 to 64 BC)’ covered his campaign to be elected consul, which becomes entangled with a major plot by Julius Caesar and Marcus Licinius Crassus to stitch up control of the Roman state. Taken together it covers 15 years.

This book covers the next five years in Cicero’s life and career (which explains the title, the Latin word lustrum referring, among other things, to the religious sacrifice offered every five years by the state officials known as ‘censors’ and so, by extension, to a period of five years. This is clearly explained in  an epigraph to the book and is referenced in the text on page 392). Once again the novel is divided into two parts:

Part one – Consul

This covers the dramatic and fateful year of 63 BC and gives a compelling and thrilling description of the slow escalation of the crisis which developed into Lucius Sergius Catalina’s conspiracy to overthrow the Roman state. I’ve described the events in my review of Sallust’s Cataline War, but Harris brings it astonishingly, vividly, harrowingly to life, unforgettably conveying the astonishing, unbearable pressure Cicero came under, as the lead consul in Rome, of proving the existence of the conspiracy and then punishing the conspirators.

The climax of the Cataline conspiracy is the agonised decision to execute the five patrician senators who were foolish enough to be Cataline’s accomplices in the city and allow themselves to be caught (Cataline himself was hundreds of miles away, safely protected by the army raised by his colleague Manlius). It was an agonising decision because the executions were carried out without a formal trial, solely on the basis of a vote in the Senate, and this rash act would come back to haunt Cicero.

Part two – Pater Patriae

This covers the next four years, 62 to 58 BC, describing a number of key events which followed in the aftermath of the conspiracy. Beneath a blizzard of more overt incidents and challenges, the two underlying themes are the unstoppable rise of Caesar and his creation of the First Triumvirate (in 60 BC), and the concomitant rise of the slippery young demagogue Publius Claudius Pulcher, aided by his clever sexy sister, Clodia.

No words can convey the vividness with which Harris describes both the key players in late re[publican power politics, but also the gripping shifts in the endless political powerplay which Cicero finds himself trying to ride and survive.

The book contains many thrilling, nerve-biting scenes, but maybe the most shocking or heart-stopping is the moment when Caesar, doubly powerful in his roles of pontifex maximus and consul, forces the senator Lucius Lucullus to apologise for opposing him in the senate on his knees, commanding he do so like an outraged monarch, and the old general, realising he has no choice and creakily sinking to his knees to beg forgiveness of the dark-eyed force of nature which is Caesar, and the entire senate looking on in silent impotence (p.408).

The book rises to a climax as Clodius triumphs, being first adopted by a plebeian family, then winning the tribuneship, proposing a range of populist measures (a free grain dole for every family) before moving in on his old enemy, Cicero, by proposing a bill accusing him of murder in having the Cataline conspirators executed without a trial and enacting that:

It shall be a capital offence to offer fire and water to any person who has put Roman citizens to death without a trial. (p.417)

This innocent-sounding measure spells death for all around Cicero, his wife, his household and all his friends. The only way not to imperil all of them is to flee the city as quickly as possible and so that is how the second novel ends,

Power

Above all these books are about power, political and personal and Harris brilliantly and thrillingly conveys the world of the Rome’s senior aristocracy where every meeting, every dinner, every conversation is dominated by politics, not just chat about the powerful but every meeting between the social elite was politics: the jungle of social rivalry never stops and never ends.

‘From now on everything is to be written down.’
‘Yes, Senator.’
‘We’re heading into dangerous waters, Tiro. Every reef and current must be charted.’ (p.28)

Because every single reef and current conceals threat, power plays, the strategies and power plays of immensely rich and powerful people like Caesar (with his ‘divine recklessness), Crassus and Pompey, the populares or populists, on one side, and the leaders of the optimates or aristocratic party such as Quintus Lutatius Catulus, Quintus Hortensius (Cicero’s rival to the title best lawyer in Rome) and father of the senate, Vatia Isauricus.

In this way he cut through the posturing and sentiment to the nub of the issue which was, as it always is, power. (p.49)

Ancient and modern

One of the features of the first book was the way the narrator, Tiro, Cicero’s freed slave and secretary, not only loyally described all the events, meetings, conversations and so on which he witnessed, but also drops in comments and reflections – on people, places and situations. Above all Harris has him drop generalisations about the nature of power, especially political power, which are carefully phrased so that they can be applied to contemporary British politics as much as to ancient Roman politics. The result is a pleasant psychological shimmer, where the reader registers the comment’s appropriateness to the plot but also realises it can be applied to much more recent events.

  • Sura was a man of great ambition and boundless stupidity, two qualities which in politics often go together. (p.18)
  • It is one of the tricks of the successful politician to be able to hold many things in mind at once and to switch between them as the need arises, otherwise life would be insupportable. (p.31)
  • ‘Unfortunately,’ replied Cicero, ‘politics is neither as clean as a wrestling match, nor played according to fixed rules.’ (p.80)
  • The really successful politician detaches his private self from their insults and reverses of public life, so that it is almost as if they happen to someone else. (p.81)
  • ‘This is the business of politics – to surmount each challenge as it appears and be ready to deal with the next.’ (p.92)
  • ‘In politics one cannot always pick and choose one’s enemies, let alone one’s friends.’ (p. 114)
  • ‘There’s nothing more fatal during an election campaign than to appear unconfident.’ (p.124)
  • There are times in politics, as in life generally, when whatever one does is wrong. (p.137)
  • Once a leader starts to be laughed at as a matter of routine, he loses authority, and then he is finished. (p.147)
  • Politics has loyalties all of its own and they greatly supersede those to in-laws. (p.164)
  • There are no lasting victories in politics, there is only the remorseless grinding forward of events. If my work has a moral, this is it. (p.186)
  • ‘You sometimes have too many scruples for the dirty business of politics, Tiro. (p.280)
  • Sometimes in politics a great weakness can be turned into a strength. (p.293)
  • He had learned from Cicero the tricks of political campaigning: keep your speeches short, remember names, tell jokes, put on a show; above all, render an issue, however complex, into a story anyone can grasp. (p.294)
  • It was yet another lesson to me in politics – an occupation that, if it is to be pursued successfully, demands the most extraordinary reserves of self-discipline, a quality that the naive often mistake for hypocrisy. (p.337)
  • ‘In politics how things look is often more important than what they are.’ (p.341)
  • Up to that point Cicero had been treating the Spaniard with a kind of friendly disdain – as a joke figure: one of those self-important go-betweens who often crop up in politics. (p.353)
  • ‘We both know how politics is played. Sooner or later failure comes to us all.’ (p.431)

Like the descriptions mentioned below, these sententiae are superficially intelligent, insightful and compelling but many, on a moment’s reflection, melt like a snowball in sunshine. They are very like the truisms and bromides (‘a trite statement that is intended to soothe or placate’) which pad out opinion columns in newspapers and magazines, which you nod agreement to then can’t remember half an hour later. For example, saying it is in the nature of politics to deal with one thing another another, is not very different from how you have to cope with one thing after another in your work, in being a parent, or life in general.  It is in the nature of the thriller, as a genre, to present a heightened simulacrum of reality which grips and thrills your imagination at the time of reading, but which you can barely remember a few days later.

A checklist of references

Having read my Plutarch and Suetonius, as well as modern historians who reference other ancient sources, I’m familiar with attributes and anecdotes about many of the key players, not only Cicero, but Caesar, Crassus, Pompey and so on. It is entertaining to watch Harris slip them into his narrative at appropriate moments, like hearing a composer slip snippets of popular songs into a symphony. Thus:

A variation on the much-repeated story that Caesar burst into tears because by the age when Alexander the Great died, having conquered the known world, Caesar had achieved nothing (referenced on p.25, and then reprised but this time with Cicero being the one mournfully wishing he’d matched Alexander on p.145) (Plutarch’s Life of Caesar chapter 11, Suetonius’s Life of Caesar chapter 7.)

Caesar telling his mother he will return pontifex maximus or not at all (p.85) (Plutarch’s Caesar, chapter 7, Suetonius’s Caesar, chapter 13).

The most famous courtesan in Rome (Flora) saying she never left Pompey’s house without bite marks on her neck (p.336) (Plutarch’s Life of Pompey, chapter 2).

Actually there aren’t as many of these as there are in the first novel (or I missed some). Rather more obvious is Harris quoting directly from set piece speeches which were recorded and have survived from antiquity, namely Cicero’s ferocious attack on Catiline in the senate, and the debate about whether to execute the conspirators featuring diametrically opposed speeches from Caesar (advocating clemency and life imprisonment) and Cato (immediate death penalty) which, I think, are sourced from Sallust’s account.

When Caesar as consul drives his fellow consul to retreat to his house but continues to pass laws, Cicero is said to have quipped that the laws were being passed by the joint consulship of Julius and Caesar (p.369) (Suetonius’s Life of Cesar, chapter 20).

Realistic in two ways

The novel is vividly imagined and hugely pleasurable to read in at least three ways:

1. Sensual

The smell, the feel, the noise, the sight of Rome, its streets and people, the crowd cheering a procession, the packed and dusty Field of Mars on election day, the crowd of the white toga-wearing elite waiting outside the Senate house, the queue of clients outside every senator’s door, Cicero’s breath visible on a cold December morning, the chirping of cicadas on a hot Italian evening – the novel presents a steady stream of vividly imagined scenes which bring ancient Rome vibrantly alive (as they say).

The vivid Caesar’s pokey house in a rundown neighbourhood, or Cicero and Tiro’s visit to Lucullus’s stupendous luxury villa overlooking the Bay of Naples (p.107).

2. Socio-political

But more important is the detailed descriptions Harris gives of Roman processes and rituals, religious, social and political.

Now that Cicero is consul there are more scenes set specifically in the Senate and Harris makes this feel eerily like the House of Commons with a great central aisle separating two sets of stepped benches occupied by the opposing parties, the patricians and the populists.

  • the strange and spooky taking of the augury on the morning Cicero assumes his post as consul
  • the inauguration of the two new consults accompanied by prayers, the slaughter of a sacred bull, flags and trumpets (p.45)
  • the weird details of the Latin Festival held on the Alban Mount (p.57)
  • the dignified funeral procession for the old pontifex maximus, Metellus Pius (p.81)
  • the triumph of Lucullus (p.127)
  • the hot dusty crowd packing the Field of Mars to elect next year’s consuls and praetors (p.142)
  • the preparations for the Feast of the Great Goddess (p.211)

This vivid imagining of set pieces of the Roman constitution and procedures exceeds anything I’ve read in any other book. Harris really explains what went on at the ceremonies, how they looked and felt and smelled.

It is fascinating to read his account of the chief augur taking the auguries on the eve of his consulship and then the importance of auguries preceding all other state events, such as sessions of the Senate or elections on the Field of Mars.

It is fascinating to follow the precise sequence of rituals, prayers, the order of procession and so on involved in a classical Roman triumph up to and including the ritual strangling of the foreign kings and captives by the carnifex or public executioner (p.128).

It is illuminating to read the description of a Roman wedding, the wedding of Cicero’s beloved daughter Tullia, aged just 14, to Gaius Frugi of the Piso clan (p.146).

The ceremony of adoption, even it is the travesty conducted under coercion of Clodius being adopted as a plebeian so he could stand as a tribune (pages 386 to 387).

3. Drama

Then there are scenes which are just thrillingly dramatic:

The dramatic ambush of the conspirators on the Mulvian Bridge (pages 203 to 207).

The description of the trial of Publius Clodius Pulcher for blasphemy at which he scandalously bribes the jurors to acquit him despite his obvious guilt (pages 304 to 320).

The dramatic trial in which Cicero’s once-time pupil Marcus Caelius Rufus confidently crushes Cicero’s defence of his corrupt partner as consul, Caius Antonius Hybrida (pages 369 to 384).

The reassuring familiarity of thriller tropes

So far I haven’t conveyed how immensely enjoyable this book is. It is well written, packed with interesting facts about ancient Rome, steeped with insight and intelligence into the workings of power and influence.

Harris makes it live through a hundred vividly imagined details – his description of Caesar’s ancient, venerable but shabby house in the now rundown neighbourhood of the Subura; Caesar’s distinctively dry rasping voice (p.29); Cicero and Tiro’s atmospheric visit to the augurs who take them up onto the roof of their building to observe the prevailing winds and the flight of birds.

The narrative starts at the end of December, just as Cicero is about to commence his year as consul and Rome is experiencing unusual snowfall, so the whole city is white with snowdrifts, vividly described.

A feature of thrillers is the action is all in the events and their threatening, thrilling implications, rarely in the prose style. The prose generally has to be as plain and transparent as possible in order to clearly and quickly explain the facts and let the reader thrill to their accumulating threat and implications.

Therefore thrillers are not afraid of clichés. It’s like a painter painting pictures long after the era of painting has died, because there continues to be a market for painting long after all possible avenues and permutations of painting have been exhausted.

In the same way, despite a hundred years or more of experimentation designed to expand, subvert or blow up the novel as a literary form, the thriller genre continues to thrive, generating endless new novels telling similar stories and using time-honoured techniques and phraseology. Just because there is no longer a literary avant garde doesn’t mean books don’t continue to sell. In fact more novels are sold every year than ever before in human history, just as there are more TV shows and more movies than ever before. More of everything.

There has to be an arresting opening sentence and event:

Two days before the inauguration of Marcus Tullius Cicero as consul of Rome, the body of a child was pulled from the river Tiber, close to the boat sheds of the republican war fleet. (opening sentence)

An evil antagonist:

‘Damn Caesar!’ said Cicero suddenly. ‘There’s nothing dishonourable about ambition. I’m ambitious myself. But his lust for power is not of this world. You look into those eyes of his, and it’s like staring into some dark sea at the height of a storm.’
(Lustrum, page 34)

The baddies confront each other in tense standoffs:

Catalina’s eyes glittered and his large hands contracted into fists. ‘My first ancestor was Sergestus, companion of Aeneas, the founder of our city – and you dare to tell me to leave?’ (p.169)

And the phenomenally charged confrontation right at the end between a miserable, defeated Cicero being hounded out of his beloved Rome and Julius Caesar, brisk in his shining armour, mustering his legions to set off for his command in Gaul. When Caesar offers Cicero the legateship with him which would ensure his safety from prosecution, Cicero realises he must turn it down:

‘Thank you for your consideration,’ replied Cicero, ‘but it would never work.’
‘Why not?’
‘Because…what is wicked about you Caesar – worse than Pompey, worse than Clodius, worse even than Catalina – is that you won’t rest until we are all obliged to go down on our knees to you.’ (p.439)

Sudden alarms:

I was woken by fists pounding on the front door. I sat up with a start. I could only have been asleep for a few moments. The distant hammering came again, followed by ferocious barking, shouts and running feet. (p.148)

And the hero realising a conspiracy is afoot:

Cicero grabbed my arm. ‘So the actual crime will be to help keep me alive? They won’t even give me a trial.’ (p.418)

All very, very well done and yet, somehow, utterly predictable. The cosy familiarity of thriller tropes extends down to the level of individual sentences and metaphors. These are good in their way, but utterly familiar and slip down like an iced drink by the swimming pool at a Mediterranean resort. Here is Tiro’s description of Rome in the depths of winter:

The smoke from the altar fires was curling above the temples. I could smell the saffron burning, and hear the lowing of the bulls awaiting sacrifice. As we neared the Arch of Scipio I looked back, and there was Rome – her hills and valleys, towers and temples, porticoes and houses all veiled white and sparkling with snow, like a bride in her gown awaiting her groom. (p.44)

‘Like a bride in her gown awaiting her groom’ – a metaphor which has been around as long as fiction, for centuries, predigested and processed by the reader with barely a flicker of recognition.

Portraits of Rome

Speaking of Rome, I slowly realised that Harris describes Rome so regularly, in different seasons and moods, that it is obviously part of a concerted strategy to make ‘Rome herself’ a character in the novel. This wasn’t so apparent in Imperium (or I just missed it) but seems to me a deliberate tactic in this novel. At the same time I think these descriptions demonstrate the reliance of this kind of thriller on cliché and stereotype. There are never any surprises; things always exactly fit the mood and needs of the narrative.

The strategy is apparent from the start, when Harris paints an opening picture of Rome as the capital of a great Mediterranean empire but nonetheless stricken with social and economic turmoil, resulting in a decadent febrile atmosphere – which, of course, suits the writer of a tense thriller down to the ground.

Such was the state of the city on the eve of Cicero’s consulship – a vortex of hunger, rumour and anxiety; of crippled veterans and bankrupt farmers begging at every corner; of roistering bands of drunken young men terrorising shopkeepers; of women from good families openly prostituting themselves outside the taverns; of sudden conflagrations, violent tempests, moonless nights and scavenging dogs; of fanatics, soothsayers, beggars, fights. (p.8)

Then, here is Tiro’s description of Rome in midsummer:

It was one of those endless hot summer days when the sun seems reluctant to sink, and I remember how still it was, the motes of dust motionless in the shafts of fading light. On such evenings, when the only sounds even in the city are the drone of insects and the soft trilling of the birds, Rome seems older than anywhere in the world; as old as the earth itself; entirely beyond time. (p.130)

‘One of those endless hot summer days’ – see what I mean be generic description: this sentence could come from any one of hundreds of thousands of popular novels. Here is Tiro’s description of Rome at the height of the Cataline panic:

By the time Cicero set off for the temple, tightly protected by lictors and bodyguards, an atmosphere of real dread hung over the city, as tangible as the grey November mist rising from the Tiber. The streets were deathly quiet. Nobody applauded or jeered; they simply hid indoors. In the shadows of their windows the citizenry gathered, white-faced and silent, to watch the consul pass. (p.182)

Here is Tiro’s description of Rome on the night Cicero finally confirms the Catiline conspiracy to the senate:

We stepped out from the library onto the narrow terrace. Down in the valley, the effect of the curfew was to make Rome seem as dark and fathomless as a lake. Only the Temple of Luna, lit up by torches on the slope of the Palatine, was distinctly visible. It seemed to hover, suspended in the night, like some white-hulled vessel descended from the stars to inspect us. (p.226)

Good, isn’t it? Efficient, effective and highly atmospheric but, for me, ultimately, soulless. Harris’s prose tastes of chrome. It feels a beautifully designed, expensive sports car, recently washed and gleaming in the sun. Perfect of its kind.

Terentia

We get to know all the characters well, from the public figures such as Caesar, Crassus, Hortensius, Catalina, Clodius, Cato, Lucullus, Metellus, through to members of Cicero’s household, his brother Quintus and above all his fearsome wife Terentia. Harris steadily builds up a portrait of Terentia as not conventionally attractive but radiating personality and determination and fierce in argument.

It was around this time that Terentia began to play an important role in Cicero’s consulship. People often wondered why Cicero was still married to her after fifteen years, for she was excessively pious and had little beauty and even less charm. But she had something rarer. She had character. She commanded respect, and increasingly as the years went on he sought her advice. She had no interest in philosophy or literature, no knowledge of history; not much learning of any sort, in fact.  However, unburdened by education or natural delicacy, she did possess a rare gift for seeing straight through to the heart of a thing, be it a problem or a person, and saying exactly what she thought. (p.98)

Cicero had married Terentia for her money and it was her money which funded his successful campaigns to  gain magistracies and so enter the senate. Harris rarely mentions her without adding to the impression of fearsome redoubtability:

  • Was Caesar hinting by this remark that he wanted to seduce Terentia? I doubt it. The most hostile tribe of Gaul would have been a less gruelling conquest. (p.24)
  • I must not forget Terentia, who carried a heavy iron candle-holder at all times, and who would probably have been more effective than any of us. (p.177)
  • Terentia had the coolest head present. (p.421)

This gives the impression of painting a character, the kind of thing which people like in their fictions – except that it is all very familiar, the politician’s wife as fearsome termagent, the protagonist’s wife the only person he’s truly afraid of. It feels like another fictional cliché. One of the descriptions of Terentia raising merry hell in Cicero’s household for some reason triggered a memory of Les Dawson dressed as a northern housewife, wearing a hairnet over her curlers and brandishing a rolling pin ready to pick a fight with her henpecked husband.

Tricks of oratory

Harris has Tiro from time to time share with us Cicero’s tips for delivering an effective speech. Presumably these are taken from Cicero’s writings about oratory.

  1. Cicero’s first law of rhetoric, a speech must always contain a surprise. (p.52)
  2. The bigger a crowd is, the more stupid it is.
  3. When addressing an immense multitude it is always good to invoke the supernatural and call on the gods. (p.73)

Finally

All the texts we have from republican Rome were written by the elite. Not aristocrats, necessarily, but nonetheless from the wealthy, slave-owning upper classes. (As a side issue it’s notable that two of the most memorable writers from the period did not belong to this class, but were men on the make, Cicero and Caesar, whose writings were motivated, in part, by the need to prove themselves and improve themselves and lift themselves up into the ruling class. The writings of both men are heavy with self-promotion. LinkedIn literature.)

In all these thousands of pages we never hear the voices of ‘ordinary’ people, meaning farm workers, labourers, shopkeepers, businessmen, merchants, tax collectors and the millions of ordinary people who populated the Roman Empire.

Which makes it all the more striking that the narrator of all three of these Cicero novels is a slave. Well educated, highly literate, shrewd and tactful, Tiro is an idealised narrator and it is only occasionally that he reminds us that he is not free. He is utterly reliant on his master for food, lodging and protection and must obey his orders at all times.

Tiro’s character is ‘dramatised’ a bit more in this novel than the previous one because Harris gives him a love interest, namely a slave girl in the household of the super-rich retired general, Lucullus. She is called Agathe and is assigned to Tiro to give him a bath and massage after his long journey to Lucullus’s palace to deliver a message (not in his own right, only because he is Cicero’s secretary) and proceeds, easily and casually, to have sex with him, as nubile young women often do in thrillers written by men, from James Bond downwards.

Tiro glimpses Agathe on a couple of other occasions (pages 307) and on the final occasion is saddened to see she is so worn out with slave life that all her softness and beauty has gone. She doesn’t even recognise him (p.424). But it’s not a major plot strand, in fact it’s very minor, but her presence serves to bring out what may be obvious but I’ll say anyway: the entire Cicero trilogy, consisting of over 1,200 pages, is a slave’s eye view of republican Rome.

I don’t want to belabour the point but it is a mark of the thriller’s lack of depth or seriousness, its determination to remain no more than an intelligent poolside read, that Tiro’s condition as a slave and dependent is from time to time mentioned but the state of slavehood, the central fact of the narrator’s life, is nowhere really explored.

Two or three times Tiro mentions he’d like to gain his freedom and set up on a nice little farm. Three quarters of the way through the book, Cicero’s brother, Quintus, about to set off for a governorship in Macedonia, promises Tiro his freedom when he returns (p.324).

And right at the very end, as Cicero is being forced into exile, he magnanimously gives Tiro his freedom and tells him to leave him, as being in his presence jeopardises his life. But Tiro promptly rejects the offer of freedom and pledges to remain Cicero’s slave, secretary and confidante, as the pair, along with a couple of other (unnamed) slaves, scuttle through the midnight streets to elude Clodius’s henchmen, bribe their way out of one of the city’s gates, and set off into exile.

This is a very moving scene to end the long narrative on and yet…To me what was striking was that… these are novels written by a slave in which the condition of slavery is never really broached or investigated or dramatised or experienced.

Tiro mentions that he’s a slave, as you might mention needing to buy a new car or get your roof fixed. It is referred to half a dozen times as a fact. But the condition of slavehood is never really adequately dramatised or investigated, the psychology of slavery not at all. Tiro remains to the end a timid version of the sensible, intelligent but perpetually impressed Dr Watson-style sidekick, in awe of his large-than-life master, observant, obedient and respectful.

This is an immensely enjoyable book, on multiple levels. But the absence of meditation on this subject is a reminder of the limited ambitions and rewards of the thriller as a genre.

Catullus

The poet Gaius Valerius Catullus was, during the period covered by the novel, madly in love with Clodia, sister of the disreputable Publius Clodius Pulcher who is a central figure in part two, and wife of Metellus Celer. Harris makes a sly reference to Catullus without mentioning him by name, designed to please the cognoscenti, having Celer tell Cicero, who’s come round on a social call, after Clodia is quite rude to him before walking off:

‘Well, there it is. I wish she talked to you as much as she does this damned poet who’s always trailing round after her…’ (p.340)

A reference to Catullus, for anyone who’s read a bit around the subject. Probably the book contains more sly amused references like that, not all of which I got.


Credit

Lustrum by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson books in 2009. All references are to the 2010 Arrow paperback edition.

The Cicero trilogy

Robert Harris reviews

Roman reviews

Imperium by Robert Harris (2006)

‘Politics is history on the wing! What other sphere of human activity calls forth all that is most noble in men’s souls, and all that is most base? Or has such excitement? Or more vividly exposes our strengths and weaknesses?’
(Cicero defending his fascination with politics to his secretary, Tiro, in Imperium, page 263)

What you notice first about this book are a) its length (480 pages) and b) the blank flatness of its style. Here’s how it opens:

My name is Tiro. For thirty-six years I was the confidential secretary of the Roman statesman Cicero. At first this was exciting, then astonishing, then arduous, and finally extremely dangerous. During those years I believe he spent more hours with me than with any other person, including his own family. I witnessed his private meetings and carried his secret messages. I took down his speeches, his letters and his literary works, even his poetry – such an outpouring of words that I had to invent what is commonly called shorthand to cope with the flow, a system still used to record the deliberations of the senate, and for which I was recently awarded a modest pension. (p.3)

Very clear, plain and factual, with a complete absence of literary effects or colour. Opening my review of Harris’s 2016 thriller Conclave to extract the list of my reviews of Harris’s other novels, I see this is exactly what I thought about that work, too, so I might as well quote myself:

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 hotel lift or 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 explanations of the personalities and politics of 1st century BC Rome – but never the way he reports it. As befits a man who worked for decades in high level journalism, Harris’s English is unfailingly clear and lucid, a servant of the subject matter, never drawing attention to itself.

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 something be desired when it comes to character, setting or atmosphere.

Having read four histories of ancient Rome which all feature passages about Cicero, Sallust’s Catiline War in which he plays a starring role, Plutarch’s Life of Cicero and a selection of Cicero’s letters, I feel pretty familiar, if not slightly bored, by the actual content of the book i.e. the setting, characters and main events of Republican Rome from 79 to 64 BC (the exact dates are indicated on the title pages of the novels two parts).

For me, already over-familiar with the course of events, the interest was not in the narrative as such, but in the way Harris ‘brings the history alive’ by vividly imagining particular moments. These are hardly great literature but they have an uncanny knack of ringing true and, slowly, subtly, without you realising it, placing you right there, in the houses of the great, in the forum and senate house and numerous other locations of ancient Rome, watching the characters interact, the voters queue up on the dusty Field of Mars, the scrum of senators waiting outside the senate house, the night time stink coming from the public dumps just beyond the city walls, Cicero’s habit of tossing a leather ball from hand to hand as he thinks, or working a crowd of clients, pressing the flesh and greeting everyone by name.

The prose is as interesting as tap water, style-wise, but quite quickly the sheer intelligence Harris brings to his descriptions of ancient Roman power politics and the deftness with which he describes scenes and settings, really draw the reader into the narrative.

Ticking the boxes

Having just read Plutarch’s Life of Cicero and Cicero’s letters, I recognise well-known anecdotes or remarks popping up throughout the novel. It feels slightly, to someone familiar with the source texts, as if Harris made a list of key anecdotes about and descriptions of Cicero and then found places to insert them into his text. It has a slightly mechanical feel. Thus we get mention of:

  • Cicero’s habit of making witty jokes about people which mortally offended them, thus making unnecessary enemies (pages 62, 296, 325, 326, 347, 403)
  • how Marcus Licinius Crassus got rich by sending his people to wherever a fire had broken out in Rome and offering to buy their houses from the owners at rock bottom prices then, when they’d sold them, sending in his fire brigade to put out the fires and make a massive profit on the properties (pages 79 and 306)
  • Cicero’s touchiness about his lowly provincial origins (p.97)
  • the fact that the leading lawyer in Rome, Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, owned a statuette of the sphinx, the subject of one of Cicero’s wisecracks as reported in Plutarch’s life (pages 237 and 444; Plutarch’s Life of Cicero chapter 7)
  • the anecdote in Plutarch of pushy young Gnaeus Pompeius telling the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla that more people worship the rising than the setting sun (p.218)
  • the much-told story of how Caesar was captured by pirates and, after he was eventually ransomed and released, returned with Roman soldiers, tracked down all his captors and supervised their crucifixions (p.287)
  • the anecdote in Plutarch of the raven flying over the forum when Pompey was acclaimed to the special command to eliminate the pirate threat, and which was killed by the roar of approval from the crowd, dropping stone dead out of the sky (p.324 and Plutarch’s Life of Pompey chapter 25)

There’s a steady stream of these little flash bulbs going off in the narrative, as one by one anecdotes from the sources are deftly inserted into the text and ticked off the list.

Politics

But the real subject of the novel is not Cicero’s life but politics.

Harris was famously close to the Blair family during Tony Blair’s years as leader of New Labour. Although not directly involved in politics he saw how power and personality played out at the highest levels, experience which underpins The Ghost, his 2007 novel about a fictional Labour Prime Minister and his wife, which is blatantly based on Tony and Cherie Blair. That novel was published just a year after this one and you can’t help thinking they were worked on simultaneously, insights into the nature of power allotted to one or other of the closely related texts as appropriate.

All this is relevant because political power is also the subject of Imperium. It’s a novel about power and Harris takes every opportunity to really imagine what the exercise of power would have looked and felt like in ancient Rome. Harris’s descriptions can perhaps be categorised into implicit and explicit descriptions.

1. By explicit all I mean is explicit comments on and about the nature of power. Tiro’s narrative is littered with apothegms and reflections on the exercise of power, which are phrased in such a way that they could apply to Westminster today or to any place where power is exercised:

  • Power brings a man many luxuries, but a clean pair of hands is seldom among them. (p.2)
  • ‘The first rule in politics, Tiro, never forget a face.’ (p.29)
  • ‘Sometimes if you find yourself stuck, in politics, the thing to do is start a fight – start a fight, even if you do not know how you are going to win it, because it is only when a fight is on, and everything is in motion, that you can hope to see your way through.’ (p.58)
  • As every fool knows, the quickest way to get to the top on politics is to get yourself close to the man at the top. (p.76)
  • Politics is a country idiot, capable of concentrating on only one thing at a time. (p.77)
  • There are certain politicians who can’t stand to be in the same room as one another, even if mutual self-interest dictates that they should try to get along…This is what the Stoics fail to grasp when they assert that reason rather than emotion should play the dominant part in human affairs. I am afraid the reverse is true, and always will be, even – perhaps especially – in the supposedly calculating world of politics. (p.84)
  • I have frequently observed this curious aspect of power: that it is often when one is physically closest to its source that one is least well informed as to what is actually going on. (p.90)
  • No one can really claim to know politics properly until he has stayed up all night, writing a speech for delivery the following day. (p.132)
  • There are few forces in politics harder to resist than a feeling that something is inevitable, for humans move as a flock and will always rush like sheep towards the safety of a winner. (p.188)
  • ‘The trouble with Lucius is he thinks politics is a fight for justice. Politics is a profession.’ (p.234)
  • The work gave Cicero his first real taste of what it is to have power – which is usually, when it comes down to it, a matter of choosing between equally unpalatable options – and fairly bitter he found it. (p.235)
  • Cicero knew that the way to a great man‘s confidence, curiously enough, is often to speak harshly back to him, thus conveying an appearance of disinterested candour. (p.271)
  • Is this not the dream of every proud and ambitious man? That rather than having to get down in the dust and fight for power, the people should come crawling to him, begging him to accept it as a gift? (p.292)
  • How important appearance is in politics. (p.296)
  • The journey to the top in politics often confines a man with some uncongenial fellow passengers and shows him strange scenery. (p.301)
  • You can scheme all you like in politics, the gesture seemed to say, but in the end it all comes down to luck. (p.333)
  • It is dangerous in politics to find oneself a great man’s whipping boy. (as Cicero began to find himself ‘owned’ by Pompey, p.340)
  • What a heap of ash most political careers amount to, when one really stops to consider them! (p.394)
  • ‘Cicero, you disappoint me. Since when has idiocy been a bar to advancement in politics?’ (p.398)
  • ‘The ability to listen to bores requires stamina, and such stamina is the essence of politics. It is from the bores that you really find things out.’ (p.405)
  • It is always said of elections, in my experience, that whichever one is in progress at the time is the most significant there has ever been. (p.469)

As mention of Tony Blair suggests, quite a few of these sayings about politics could be applied to the contemporary British political world which Harris had seen at first hand. The kind of generalised rules Tiro articulates are designed to be widely applied. Thus when he has Cicero say:

‘The most fatal error for any statesman is to allow his fellow countrymen, even for an instant, to suspect that he puts the interests of foreigners above those of his own people.’ (p.251)

it made me think of how Jeremy Corbyn was monstered in the Tory press for his associations with the IRA and Hamas i.e. was accused of being unpatriotic. When Tiro describes the hysterical fear triggered in Rome when pirates attacked and burned the port city of Ostia, and how Pompey and Caesar describe this as a new kind of threat, international, with no centralised power structure, which must be crushed – it was impossible not to hear echoes of the kind of rhetoric which filled thousands of articles and op-eds about al-Qaeda in the aftermath of 9/11 (p.268).

Tiro’s thoughts are designed to make the reader hover, equivocally, between the ostensible setting of Rome 70 BC and London 1990s or 2020s. If there’s any consistent ‘literary’ effect in the book, maybe it’s this.

2. What I mean by implicit is the way Harris brilliantly captures the dynamics of power as it plays out in personal confrontations, in dramatic scenes and situations cleverly constructed to demonstrate how power politics really works in practice; how cunning political operators handle themselves and manipulate others. Thus:

  • The meeting with Lollius Palicanus who represents Pompey’s interest and tries to persuade Cicero to join up to Pompey’s cause. (p.61)
  • The meeting with Crassus outside Rome after the latter had crushed the Spartacus rebellion and crucified 6,000 of the rebel gladiators along 350 miles of the Appian Way. That’s all very Hollywood, but the point of the scene is the way the two men, intellectually and psychologically, sound each other out, assess each other, sparring and disagreeing while on the surface remaining immaculately polite, all while Tiro looks on. (p.81)
  • The way Cicero is invited to Pompey’s first big levée in the city after returning from his successful campaigns in Spain, and then only cursorily greeted by Pompey in a lineup like the cast meeting a royal at a movie premiere. It is a memorable image of the relationship between true, exceptional power (Pompey) and a rather desperate aspirer (Cicero). (p.97)
  • The entire extended description of the trial of Gaius Verres amounts to Cicero creating power from his oratory and the wealth of evidence he has amassed, and then wielding it against Verres along with the lawyer he has bought (Hortensius) and the corrupt senators he has bribed until they are all swept away in mob anger at the governor (Verres’s) scandalous, criminal behaviour. (chapter 9, pages 203 to 238)
  • ‘There is as much skill in knowing how to handle a meeting of ten as in manipulating a gathering of hundreds.’ (p.290)
  • ‘He leaned in close and moistened his lips; there was something almost lecherous about the way Crassus talked of power.’ (p.309)

And then the climax of the plot, the sequence of events leading up to Cicero’s big meeting with the grandest of Rome’s aristocrats and the Faustian pact he enters into with them in order to get elected consul, is an elaborate, multi-levelled and quite thrilling dramatisation of power in action, dirty deals, betrayals, compromises and all.

Imperium

Hence the title of the book. The plot centres on Cicero as described by his loyal freedman and secretary Tiro, but its real subject is power, how to win it, use it and keep it, as the narrator Tiro himself explains on page 2 with its hokey reference to the opening of Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid. ‘Arms and the man I sing’, wrote Virgil. Harris writes:

It is of power and the man that I shall sing. By power I mean official, political power – what we know in Latin as imperium – the power of life and death, as vested by the state in an individual.

I looked up the Wikipedia definition:

In ancient Rome, imperium was a form of authority held by a citizen to control a military or governmental entity. It is distinct from auctoritas and potestas, different and generally inferior types of power in the Roman Republic and Empire. One’s imperium could be over a specific military unit, or it could be over a province or territory…In a general sense, imperium was the scope of someone’s power, and could include anything, such as public office, commerce, political influence, or wealth.

Tiro writes that:

Whenever I picture the word imperium it is always Pompey who comes to mind. (p.326)

But the same is true of half a dozen of the other characters who each exemplify really dizzying, intimidating top-level power in action – the terrifying Crassus, slippery Caesar, suave Publius Clodius Pulcher or half-mad Catiline. The whole novel is heady with the aroma of power and the endless threat and risk from the machinations of super-powerful men. Harris doesn’t need much literary styling because the subject matter itself is so psychologically powerful.

The plot

The text is divided into two parts:

Part one – Senator (79 to 70 BC)

This introduces the narrator, Marcus Tullius Tiro, freed slave and secretary to up-and-coming lawyer and aspiring politician Marcus Tullius Cicero. Tiro tells us he is writing his memoirs as he approaches the ripe old age of 100, long after Cicero and everyone else he will describe is dead. (Since Tiro tells us he was aged 34 in the year Cicero won the Verres case (p.230), which was in 70 BC, then 65 years later, the date must be 5 BC, well after the Roman Republic disintegrated and was replaced by the sole rule of Augustus, who established the template for the emperors who followed.)

Part one quickly jumps over Cicero’s early career, describing his sojourn in Athens where he learned oratory from the best teachers available, his election to the senate, and then the one-year governorship he served in Sicily, followed by his return to Rome and election as aedile.

But the majority of part one is devoted to Cicero’s involvement in the prosecution of the Roman governor of Sicily, Gaius Verres, for outrageous corruption and extortion, showing how it all began when a Sicilian whose business had been ruined by Verres arrives on Cicero’s doorstep, and following the subsequent twists and turns as Cicero and Tiro get drawn into his ‘case’, eventually travelling to Sicily to assemble evidence, and how the case itself gets tangled up in the bitter rivalry between Rome’s two strong men, the great general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and the menacing plutocrat Marcus Licinius Crassus.

Part one ends with Cicero overcoming all the vested interests facing him and triumphantly winning the Verres case. Along the way we have been introduced to key politicians and leading figures in Cicero’s personal life, his fearsome wife, Terentia, and beloved daughter, Tullia, his support network of brother Quintus Tullius Cicero and cousin Lucius. And enjoyed Harris’s well-researched descriptions of various aspects of life in ancient Rome, from the squalid apartment blocks known as insulae to the richest mansions, the festivals and triumphs, with special emphasis on the forms and rituals surrounding elections to public posts and ill-tempered debates in the senate.

Part two – Praetorian (68 to 64 BC)

The first part had a really strong central subject in the Verres case. Part two is a bit more diffuse. It starts by giving an insider’s view of the machinations surrounding the senate’s decision to appoint Pompey to a special command to deal with the threat from pirates, against the opposition of the aristocratic party, most of the senate and, most menacing of all, Crassus.

Then the narrative settles onto Cicero’s attempts to be elected one of Rome’s 8 praetors and, once he achieves that position, his manouevring for the ultimate prize, election as consul. Many obstacles present themselves but none as big as the enmity of the half-mad Lucius Sergius Catilina.

The novel develops into a genuinely nerve-wracking thriller as Tiro is smuggled into a secret meeting of Caesar, Crassus, Catiline and others who have developed a master plan to take over the running of the state and then make huge sums by selling off state land and taking over Egypt. Cicero then attends a late-night private meeting of Rome’s senior aristocrats, informs them about this plot and persuades them, reluctantly, that the only way to foil it is to give Cicero their vote in the consular elections, and it is this election which forms the climax of the second part.

Harris has this great knack of generating genuine excitement in a narrative – not anything to do with his style, but with the intelligent laying on of facts and his vivid depiction of the psychology of power politics. The result is that the novel builds to a real climax in the form of a thriller-style conspiracy which Cicero cleverly turns against the conspirators by revealing it to the aristocrats in exchange for their support.

And then…Cicero has won! Achieved his lifetime’s ambition. He is a consul, one of the two most powerful men in Rome for a year. And the book ends with a little family celebration on the roof of his house underneath the stars, where his entourage learn the details of the deal he made with the aristocrats and the compromises he will have to make during his time in power. Politics is nothing if not the art of compromise, dirty deals in smoke-filled rooms.

Imperium is the first in a trilogy of novels about Cicero’s career so the reader can be confident that the consequences of this deal will be described in the second book of the trilogy, Lustrum. Anyone who knows about Cicero, knows that it was during his year as consul that the Cataline conspiracy erupted, one of the most dangerous and florid events in late Republican Rome. Wow, what a feast of political intrigue for Harris the political novelist get his teeth into!

The multi-layered connectivity of Roman politics

From a factual point of view, one thing comes over very strongly in this novel which is often missing from the history books and this is the tremendous importance of family, clan, tribe and social connections among Rome’s elite in creating the very complex political ‘system’ or just situation, seething with competition and rivalry.

Elections in ancient Rome were a complicated business:

  • The Centuriate Assembly elected the highest offices of consul, praetor, and censor. This assembly divided all adult male citizens into 193 centuries organised into tiers by rank and property, with the equites or knights at the top and the unarmed and unpropertied at the bottom. Which century voted first was decided by lot and the winning century was called the centuria praerogativa (p.471)
  • Quaestors and curule aediles were elected by the Tribal Assembly, while tribunes and plebeian aediles were elected by the Plebeian Council. The electorates for both these assemblies were divided into 35 tribes or geographical units of voters. Harris names and gives pen portraits of the important tribes in his description of the election of Cicero as aedile (pages 198 to 200).

A really important point to grasp is that all votes were not equal. The votes of the wealthy and upper classes counted for a lot more than the votes of the average citizen. In the Centuriate Assembly the oldest established tribes voted first and their votes counted for more.

As well as tribes, the city was divided into wards. Each of these had community meeting halls and community (or gang) leaders, who could turn their members out if you needed a crowd, to jeer at a trial or cheer a triumph or jostle senators on their way into the senate house.

The novel gives a vivid description of the ‘voting syndicates’ based on local wards, which had organisers and which could be bought at a price (the precise, elaborate and well established method of bribing these syndicates is described in detail on pages 406 to 408).

The reader is made aware of the way these tribes and wards fed into political situations and calculations.

But sitting above this complicated electoral system was the intricate web of family connections which dictated or rather, made up Roman politics. It had arguably two aspects.

1. Like any aristocracy, the Romans had very ancient, super-well-established families which could trace their origins right back to the legendary times when the monarchy was overthrown (about 500 BC). Their authority was bolstered by their family’s track records in holding office and this was made visible because the atriums of the worthiest families contained wax busts of the ancestors who had held public office, in particular the consulship. These busts could be removed from the home and paraded by the proud descendant at festivals or political events.

The Togatus Barberini, a marble sculpture from first-century Rome depicting an unknown Roman of noble birth holding effigies of his ancestors in either hand

Let’s take a detour into structural linguistics for a moment:

Synchrony and diachrony are two complementary viewpoints in linguistic analysis. A synchronic approach considers a language at a moment in time without taking its history into account. A diachronic approach considers the development and evolution of a language through history.

The Roman upper classes can be considered in both a synchronic and diachronic perspective. I’ve just outlined the diachronic perspective, namely the history of each family and its eminent members. But the ruling class must also be seen synchronically in terms of its alliances in the present.

2. Thus someone like Cicero, trying to play the political game, had to be aware not only of the histories of all the most eminent families, but also of the super-complicated mesh of marriage alliances, of uncles, aunts, first and second cousins which connected families and factions at the highest level.

In addition to the complex interlinking of powerful families by marriage went the uniquely Roman custom of adopting someone from a different family into yours, but not in our modern sense of adopting a baby or toddler. It meant adopting a full-grown adult from one family into another. To take two famous cases, Publius Clodius Pulcher came from a very distinguished and ancient family but in a demonstration of aristocratic eccentricity, in the 50s had himself adopted by an obscure plebeian family so that he could be elected tribune of the plebs. More famously, Octavian was adopted by Julius Caesar as his heir, a legal position he used to maximum advantage when he arrived in Rome after Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC.

Laid on top of this was political alliances which came in at least two flavours: First, as a rule, the aristocracy stuck together and thought of themselves as the optimates or best people (hero figure Sulla, contemporary leader Quintus Lutatius Catulus). Anyone who opposed them was liable to be tarred as populares i.e. upstart representatives of the ever-unruly ordinary people of Rome, unpredictable, cowardly, ignoble (hero figure Marius, contemporary star Caesar).

But of course, the unrelenting competition for power of the ambitious often cut across class divides. Thus the psychopathic Cataline (‘A jagged streak of violent madness ran through Catalina like lightning across his brain’, p.351) who ended up trying to lead an abortive rebellion came from one of the oldest patrician families in Rome, gens Sergia. In his frustrated furious ambition to seize power he ended up allying himself with the working classes and political outcasts of all kinds.

His younger contemporary, Clodius, also came from one of Rome’s oldest and noblest patrician families, the Claudia gens. But, again, lust for power and a certain aristocratic perversity, led him to get adopted by an obscure plebeian so that he could be elected tribune of the plebs, which is why he changed his middle name from the aristocratic ‘Claudius’ to the more plebeian ‘Clodius’.

In addition to all this was the complicated system of clients and patrons. Rich and influential Romans acquired clients who they had done or would do favours for in return for their political or financial support, and so whose patron they would be. Powerful individuals such as Crassus, Caesar or Pompey were continually working behind the scenes to acquire and cultivate networks of hundreds of clients. Nothing came for nothing. All the deals which businessmen, lawyers, politicians and military commanders were doing all the time created new alliances, new networks of clientilism and patronage.

So as you read about figures in Republican Rome, you have to be aware that they operated in a society where people were individuals but also came enmeshed in a tribe, a clan, a family, with both a particular family history and the complexity of recent familial alliances (through marriage or adoption), as well as their position in the simmering conflict between optimates and populares, as well as their calculated commitments to this or that powerful patron.

Taken together these elements or strands created the fantastically complex matrix of history, family, class, financial, legal and political obligations which Tiro at one point (in a rare departure from Harris’s use of the plainest of plain English) describes as the ‘webwork’ of Roman society.

It’s into this webwork of 1st century BC Rome that the book swiftly plunges the reader, and a great deal of the pleasure of reading it derives from getting used to this multi-levelled game of allegiance and obligation which Cicero (and everyone else) finds themselves playing all their adult lives. With the whole thing acutely observed by the clever but non-participating eye-witness, Tiro.

Family connections

Publius Clodius Pulcher’s biography demonstrates the complex interlinking at the top of Roman society. His elder brothers were Appius Claudius Pulcher, consul in 54 BC, and Gaius Claudius Pulcher, praetor in 56 BC and subsequently governor of Asia. His sisters included Claudia, the wife of Quintus Marcius Rex, Claudia Quadrantaria, the wife of Celer, and Claudia Quinta, the wife of the fantastically successful general Lucius Licinius Lucullus.

Through his family, Clodius was closely connected with a number of prominent Roman politicians. His brother-in-law, Lucullus, was consul in 74 BC, while brother-in-law Celer was consul in 60, and the latter’s brother, Quintus Caecilius Metellus Nepos, in 57. Mucia Tertia, a half-sister to the Caecilii, was the wife of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, and later Marcus Aemilius Scaurus, praetor in 56 BC. A half-brother, Publius Mucius Scaevola, was a pontifex, while his brother Quintus was an augur, and tribune of the plebs in 54.

So anyone who tangled with Clodius had to be aware that he was also going to provoke some or all of his extended network of family members and spouses, who each had their own positions of power, ambitions and networks of clients to consider. Matrices and intricate webworks of alliance, patronage and position, in every direction…

Aspects of ancient Rome

  • The hubbub as senators gathered in the senaculum before entering the chamber for a debate.
  • Sumptuous description of Pompey’s grand triumph. (p.115)
  • The look, feel and smell of rundown apartment blocks.
  • The stench of decay coming from the public dump outside the Esquiline Gate. (p.193)
  • Detailed description of the melée on the Field of Mars on election day. (pages 196 to 200)

Harris has Tiro describe Catullus as ‘that cruellest of poets’ (p.307).

Cicero describes Tiro as his second brother (p.428).

Lowering

Right at the end of the book I realised what it is I find so depressing about Harris’s books. Not a word in any of his political books hints for a moment that politics is about making a fairer, juster, safer world, could be about plans for building a better society, helping the vulnerable, righting historic wrongs, supporting hard-working families, planning carefully for the future etc. In Harris’s discourse none of this exists.

‘The trouble with Lucius is he thinks politics is a fight for justice. Politics is a profession.’ (p.234)

Like the outstanding political journalist he was, Harris sees politics is just another career, like medicine or the law. Tiro (like the narrator of Harris’s novel of contemporary politics, Ghost) never mentions policy or political programmes, what is best for Rome and its people, but thinks only in terms of individual politicians, their scams and strategems, and the special buzz you get from being in the room with the big beasts as they are making seismic decisions.

It’s depressing because in this world of professional politicians and their journalistic hangers-on nothing ever changes and nothing ever will. A succession of charismatic crooks, desperate wannabes, blustering liars, and bullying blowhards will create coalitions of supporters enough to scrabble their way to the leadership of their parties, then do anything, say anything, make any promise and cook up any impractical policy, in order to ensure good headlines in tomorrow’s papers and cling onto power for another day.

I found that Cicero was fond of repeating certain phrases and these I learned to reduce to a line or even a few dots – thus proving what most people already know, that politicians essentially say the same thing over and over again. (p.14)

Harris’s journalistic cynicism may be intelligent and witty, and the speed of the narrative as it builds up to the big conspiracy at the end is certainly thrilling. But to any thinking reader it is also pretty dispiriting.

If you’re right in the thick of the political vortex it is no doubt tremendously exciting, and this novel powerfully projects Harris’s first-hand knowledge of the nail-biting psychology of power 2,000 years back onto the dramatic political career of Cicero. Countless memoirs testify to how thrilling it can be to be right in the thick of the political world, talking to the leaders of nations as they wage the daily struggle to stay in power, please the people and shaft their rivals. But you only have to walk out of the room, down the corridor and out into the fresh air to suddenly find the hype and hysteria surrounding most politics pathetic and squalid.

And if you’re a citizen of the country unlucky enough to be ruled by these bloviating blunderers, then there is no excitement at all, but depressed resignation at the spectacle of the unending bickering and mismanagement of idiots.

The visceral thrill of the political manoeuvrings which Harris describes so well make it easy to lose sight of the basic fact that the personal rivalries described in Imperium destabilised the late Roman Republic for decades, eventually leading to nearly 20 years of civil war and social upheaval, deaths, destruction, starvation, ruin.

Politics in our own time has given us Brexit, the mismanagement of the Covid crisis, widespread corruption, now a pointless war in Ukraine and a global food crisis. The stupidity of human mismanagement, which some people dignify with the term ‘politics’, never ends.


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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 confirm the identity of 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 risk 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 nun 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 cipher, 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 Hercules 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 mildly 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.

Munich by Robert Harris (2017)

Both men fell silent, watching him, and Legat had a peculiar sense of – what was it, he wondered afterwards? – not of déjà vu exactly, but of inevitability: that he had always known Munich was not done with him; that however far he might travel from that place and time he was forever caught in its gravitational pull and would be dragged back towards it eventually. (p.188)

This is another Robert Harris historical thriller, set during the four nailbiting days of the Munich Crisis of September 1938.

In the Acknowledgements section at the end of the book Harris discloses that the crisis had been an obsession with him even before he collaborated on a BBC documentary about it, to mark the 50th anniversary, in 1988, and he hasn’t stopped being obsessed by it. The acknowledgements go on to list no fewer than 54 volumes of history, diaries and memoirs which were consulted in the writing of this book.

And this depth of research certainly shines out from every page right from the start. Even before the text proper begins, the book has an architect’s plan of the Führerbau in Munich where the climactic scenes of the book take place, because it was here that the four key European leaders – Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister of Britain, Daladier, Premier of France, Mussolini, the Duce of Italy and Adolf Hitler, the Führer of Germany – met to resolve the crisis and here that the various backstairs shenanigans of Harris’s thriller take place.

The Munich Crisis

Hitler came to power in 1933 with promises to end reparations to the Allies (France, Britain, America) for Germany’s responsibility for World War One, and to repeal or turn back the provisions of the Versailles Treaty which had stripped Germany of some of her territory and people.

True to his word, Hitler reoccupied the Rhineland (until then a neutral zone) in March 1936. Two years later in March 1938, he sent German troops to annex Austria, thus creating a Greater Germany.

Next on the list were the ethnic Germans who lived in a strip of territory along the periphery of Czechoslovakia, a ‘new’ country which had only been created by Versailles in 1918. Hitler created a mounting sense of crisis through the summer of 1938 by making evermore feverish claims to the land, and then arranging incidents which ‘proved’ that the Czechs were attacking and victimising the ethnic Germans, blaming the Czechs for their aggression and bullying.

Now France had made formal legal obligations to guarantee Czechoslovakia’s safety, and Britain had pledged to come to France’s aid if she was attacked, so everyone in Europe could see how an assault in Czechoslovakia might lead France to mobilise, Britain to mobilise to defend here, the Poles and Russians to pile in, and it would be exactly how the Great War started – with a series of toppling dominoes plunging the continent into armageddon.

Determined to avoid this outcome at any cost, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew twice to Germany to meet Hitler, on the 15th and 22nd of September. On the second occasion he conceded that Hitler could have the Sudetenland with the full agreement of Britain and France – but Hitler moved the goalposts, now demanding the full dismemberment of Czechoslovakia and the redivision of its territory among Germany and Hungary and Poland (who also shared borders with Czechoslovakia and had mobilised their armies to seize what territory they could.)

On 26 September Hitler made a speech to a vast crowd at the Sportspalast in Berlin setting Czechoslovakia the deadline of 2pm on 28 September to cede the Sudetenland to Germany or face war. In secret, Hitler and the Wehrmacht had a fully-worked-out plan of invasion and expected to carry it out.

However, in a fast-moving sequence of events, Chamberlain sent a message via diplomatic channels to the Fascist leader of Italy, Mussolini, asking him to enter the negotiations and use his moderating influence on the Führer. Mussolini agreed, and sent a message to Hitler saying he was totally on his side but suggesting a 24 hour delay in the deadline in order to further study the problem.

Thus it came about that a conference was arranged in Munich, to be hosted by Hitler and attended by Mussolini, Chamberlain and the increasingly sidelined French premiere, Daladier.

And thus Chamberlain and his staff flew for a third time to Germany, this time to Munich, destination the Führerbau building, and here it was that over a series of closed-door meetings the four leaders and their staffs thrashed out an agreement.

It was signed by the four leaders the next day at 1.30pm. As one of Harris’s characters makes clear, the final agreement, although ostensibly submitted by the Italians, was in fact a German creation which they had given the Italians to present. The main terms were that the German army was to peacefully complete the occupation of the Sudetenland by 10 October, and an international commission would decide the future of other disputed areas.

One of the most famous aspects of the summit meeting was that the Czech leaders were physically there, but were prevented by Hitler’s orders from attending any of the actual negotiations. They were simply forced by France and Britain to accept all the terms and hand over their border area to Germany. Since this was where all their fortifications were built it left the rest of the country defenceless and, sure enough, the German army invaded and occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia just six months later, in March 1939.

Map of Czechoslovakia showing the Sudeten territory given to Germany in September 1938 in dark brown

Map of Czechoslovakia showing the Sudeten territory given to Germany in September 1938 in dark brown

All of Europe had held its breath in case the incident sparked the outbreak of another European war. Chamberlain is quoted in the book, in private and then in a famous speech to the House of Commons, saying how unbelievable it is that they all seemed to be galloping towards the apocalyptic disaster so many of them could still remember (the Great War). It was this attitude – avoiding war at all costs – that underpinned Chamberlain’s strategy. And so when he flew to Munich, and even more when he emerged with a face-saving treaty, scores of millions of people all across Europe greeted the avoidance of war with enormous relief, and Chamberlain was feted as a hero.

Of course, in hindsight, we can see that nothing was going to stop Hitler and his maniacal dreams of European domination, and Chamberlain’s policy of ‘appeasement’ grew to have an entirely negative connotation of weakness and cowardice, a policy failure which only ended up encouraging the dictator. And there were plenty of politicians and intellectuals at the time who thought Hitler needed to be stood up to, instead of cravenly given in to, and that Chamberlain had made a great mistake.

That said, there are other historians who point out that neither Britain nor France were militarily prepared for war in September 1938 and that the deal, whatever its precise morality, and despite the unforgiveable abandoning of the Czechs, did give both France but particularly Britain a crucial further year in which to re-arm and, in particular, build up an air force, the air force which went on to win the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940. It was only by a sliver that we won the Battle of Britain, thus maintaining the island of Britain as a launchpad for what eventually came the D-Day invasions.

If war had broken out in 1938, Britain might have lost and been invaded (doubtful but possible), America would never have entered the war, and Europe might have become an impenetrable Nazi fortress. Chamberlain certainly didn’t achieve the ‘peace in our time’ which he so hoped for; but maybe he did secure a vital breathing space for democracy. Historians will discuss these and other possible variations for generations…

The thriller

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the real-life, historical diplomacy, it is these hectic days leading up to 30 September, which Harris describes in minute and fascinating detail, and from both sides.

Because the book is made up of alternating chapters, following the parallel experiences of two well-placed if junior civil service figures, one on the Nazi side, one in Chamberlain’s staff.

In London we follow the working routine and then increasingly hectic preparations for flying to the conference of Hugh Legat, Oxford-educated Third Secretary in Chamberlain’s staff, very much the bottom of an elaborate hierarchy of civil servants. Through his eyes we see the bureaucracy of Number Ten Downing Street in action, as Legat interacts with his civil service bosses and Chamberlain himself (and his wife), fetching and carrying papers, writing up notes to meetings and so on.

In all these passages you can sense the intense research Harris has put in to document with meticulous accurately the layout of the buildings, the furnishing of each room, who attended which meeting, what they looked like, their personal quirks and nicknames, what was said, etc, in immense detail.

On the German side, we meet Paul von Hartmann, a junior official in the Foreign Ministry, as he, too, goes about various bureaucratic tasks, again gradually giving us insider knowledge of every personage in the German government, with pen portraits of senior civil servants, military figures as well as glimpses of the Führer himself.

Why these two protagonists? Because Harris places them at the heart of the thriller plot he has woven into the real historical events. We now know that during the Munich Crisis a group of senior figures in the Nazi regime and army met to discuss overthrowing Hitler, if the crisis blew up into full-scale war. Hartmann is one of these conspirators and so, through his eyes, we witness one of their meetings and are party to various panic-stricken phone calls among them as the crisis escalates.

None of the conspirators were western liberals. They hated reparations just as much as Hitler, they wanted to unravel the Versailles treaty, they wanted a strong Greater Germany and they were in favour of annexing the Sudetenland. They just disagreed with Hitler’s approach. They thought his brinkmanship would plunge Germany into a war it wasn’t yet militarily ready to win. And so, if the talks failed and war was declared, they were prepared to overthrow the Nazi regime and assassinate Hitler.

To this end they steal secret documents which show that Hitler had planned not only the Sudeten Crisis, and the full-blown invasion of all Czechoslovakia, but has a deeper plan to invade eastwards in order to expand Germany’s Lebensraum. This ‘incriminating’ document is a memo of a meeting Hitler held with his chiefs of staff back in November 1937. It conclusively shows that the Sudetenland is not the end, but only the start of Hitler’s territorial ambitions.

The documents are handed to Hartmann by his lover in the Ministry, Frau Winter, who is part of the plot and stole it from a Ministry safe. At a meeting of the conspirators Hartmann realises he must pass this document on to the British delegation at the conference, and his fellow conspirators agree.

Thriller tropes

It’s at this point that you enter what could be called ‘thrillerland’ i.e a whole series of familiar thriller plotlines and tropes.

  • First tension is raised as Hartmann takes a train out to a Berlin suburb for the meeting of conspirators, convinced he is being followed or watched.
  • Later he makes a copy of a top secret Nazi document and then bumps into people who, he thinks, are watching him too closely, asking too many questions. Do they suspect?

It is, after all, Nazi Germany, which comes with a ready-made atmosphere of guilt and paranoia.

Hartmann then has to wangle his way into the delegation travelling with Hitler by train from Berlin to Munich for the conference. He manages to do this but at the price of raising the suspicions of his superior, an SS Sturmbahnfūhrer, Sauer, a senior figure in the delegation who from that point onwards keeps a very close watch on Hartmann. When Hartmann takes advantage of a short stop he phones his office in Berlin to make sure that Legat is on the British delegation. His paranoia forces him to find hiding places for both the document and the pistol he has brought with him, leading to heart-thumping moments when he returns to check his hiding places and see if they’re still there.

Why is Hartmann so concerned that Legat be on the British delegation. Because they had been friends once, when Hartmann was on a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, where Legat was a student. Now he hopes to use Legat as a conduit to the British Prime Minister.

To this end, back in London and a few days earlier, Hartmann had used contacts in England to anonymously drop off less important but still secret Nazi documents at Legat’s flat in Westminster. Legat hears something coming through his letterbox but by the time he’s gone into the hall, the car with the deliverymen is long gone.

When Legat hands these documents into the authorities, he is called to the office of Foreign Office mandarin Sir Alexander Cadogan where he is introduced to a secret service colonel, Menzies. Menzies questions him and Legat reveals his friendship with Hartmann from their carefree Oxford days back at Balliol College in 1932. They had been very close friends and Legat had gone over to Munich that summer to go on a walking holiday with Hartmann in the mountains.

Menzies judges that Hartmann is obviously a member of the German ‘opposition’ (which British security have heard rumours about) and may wish to communicate with Legat in Munich. Therefore he gets Legat’s immediate superior, Cecil Syers (Chamberlain’s Private Secretary) bumped off the British delegation – much to his anger – and Legat replaces him. But with a mission – to be professional and discreet and do nothing to undermine this vital diplomatic mission – but to be alert to an approach from his old friend and to report back on its contents and intentions. Without wishing to, he has in effect been recruited as a spy.

Legat’s presence enables Harris to give the reader a first-hand account of the Chamberlain entire trip, from packing bags at Number 10, the taxi to Heston airport, the flight, the landing, the official greeting, taxis to the hotel, and then on to the Führerbau for the official reception and then meetings with Il Duce and Der Führer.

The descriptions of all these scenes reek of decades of in-depth research. Which kind of plane, the layout inside it, the sound of take-off, what refreshments were served – all of it is utterly believable but also smells a bit of the study, of the careful poring over dry old memoirs and diaries to recreate every aspect of the scene.

Those 54 books listed in the acknowledgments underpin the detailed descriptions of who was wearing what at the diplomatic reception party which precedes the actual talks, who Mussolini was talking to, what Goering was wearing, even down to the expression on Hitler’s face as he first walks down the grand staircase into the assembled diplomats.

All of it reeks of authenticity and former journalist who has done his research to a T, and all of it makes the book a fascinating account of events – right down to the way that Legat literally stumbles upon the Czech delegation (Foreign Office official Masarik and Czech Minister to Berlin Mastny) being kept in virtual house arrest by SS guards directly under Hitler’s orders – a fact he passes on to his own superiors who filter it up to the PM.

So all these descriptions make it feel like you are there. But as to the thriller plot… for once a Harris thriller failed to really catch light for me. It contains umpteen thriller tropes and moments – we share Hartmann’s stress and anxiety as he hides the incriminating document from the SS man who suspects him – and then tries to give this man the slip once everyone is at the Führerbau, the anonymous men who drop the document through Legat’s letterbox and make off in a car in the dark.

Similarly, from the moment Legat is given his spying mission by Colonel Menzies he certainly feels stiff and self-conscious. A big stumbling block comes when his superiors (not knowing about the mission Menzies has given him) instruct him to stay at the British delegations’s hotel and keep the phone line open to London to report developments, thus stymying his intention of going to the Führerbau and searching for Hartmann. Another uptick in the sense of tension.

But in the end Legat evades this order on a pretext, gets to the big Nazi building, almost immediately sees Hartmann, follows him down backstairs to the basement, out into the car park and then through local streets to a busy Bierkeller and out into the garden where they can talk in secret and that talk… is strangely inconsequential. As in, it doesn’t reveal any really big or new facts.

The crux of their conversation is this: Hartmann and his people want war to break out, so that they can recruit as many high-level German officials as possible to their plan to mount a coup and overthrow the irresponsible warmonger Hitler. This is why Hartmann hands Legat the Nazi memo dating from November 1937 which clearly states that Czechoslovakia is only the beginning of Hitler’s plans. It must be given to Chamberlain in order to make him realise that Hitler is a mad warmonger, and the final invasion of Czechoslovakia and much more will happen regardless of agreement in Munich. Chamberlain must see the memo in order to stiffen his resolve to stand up to Hitler, even if it prompts a crisis, even if it prompts war. Good. That is what the conspirators want. Or, as Hartmann puts it:

‘If Chamberlain refuses tonight to continue to negotiate under duress, then Hitler will invade Czechoslovakia tomorrow. And the moment he issues that order, everything will change, and we in the opposition, in the Army and elsewhere, will take care of Hitler.’

Chamberlain mustn’t sign a peace. If he signs a peace treaty then Hitler will be immensely popular inside Germany as the man who created a Greater Germany without firing a shot: all the waverers Hartmann and the conspirators hope to recruit will fall in line behind him. Hitler will become unstoppable. But, Legat points out, this is all hugely speculative:

Legat folded his arms and shook his head. ‘It is at this point that I’m afraid you lose me. You want my country to go to war to prevent three million Germans joining Germany, on the off chance that you and your friends can then get rid of Hitler?’ (p.297-98)

Which Hartmann has to concede, does sum up his position. And when it is stated like that, not only Hartmann and Legat realise how unlikely the position is… but so does the reader. This could never happen, the reader thinks, with the added dampener that the reader of course knows that it did not happen. At the heart of the book is a little cloak and dagger adventure among a handful of men, boiling down to these two old friends, which doesn’t amount to a hill of beans and doesn’t change anything.

So the old ‘friends’ have met, exchanged the document, and Hartmann has laid his proposition on the line. What happens in the final hundred pages?

Chamberlain refuses the Nazi memo

Both men return to their delegations and tasks which are described with documentary accuracy. But overnight Hartmann sees no sign of change in the British position and he suddenly decides to abandon diplomacy and care for his cover. He shoulders his way into the British delegation, confronts Legat and forces him to take him to Chamberlain’s room.

There Hartmann begs five minutes of Chamberlain’s time and presents him with the 1937 Nazi war plan. Chamberlain reads it and his reaction is interesting, in a way the most interesting part of the book. Chamberlain says it is entirely inappropriate for Hartmann to have pushed in like this; it breaks the chain of command on both sides, and it undermines the present negotiations; because Chamberlain is interested in the present, not what Hitler may or may not have said 6 months, or a year or five years ago. From the point of view of the professional negotiator, all that matters is what your opposite number says in the room, now. What he says and signs up to now supersedes all previous declarations. I thought that was an interesting insight into negotiating tactics as a whole.

Chamberlain reads the stolen memo but rejects it and its contents and asks Hartmann to leave, and then instructs Legat to burn it. It has no bearing on the present.

This is a very interesting scene in terms of being an education in how actual diplomacy and negotiation works, but it militates the entire basis of the thriller. the Big Secret is out. The Key Document has been shown to the Prime Minister. The Secret men and women risked their lives for, cloak and dagger letter drops in London took place for, which Legat was subbed onto the British Legation for and Hartmann played sweaty cat and mouse with his SS boss for – has finally been delivered and… nothing happens. Chamberlain says: I am ignoring it. Burn it.

Oh. OK. Hard not to feel the tension Harris has built up with all the backstairs meetings and SS searches suddenly leak away like the air from a punctured balloon.

Leyna

Throughout the narrative Legat has dropped occasional hints about a woman named Leyna, who made up the third element in his friendship with Hartmann. Only now, towards the end of the book, do we find out more.

A few hours after they’ve both been turfed out of Chamberlain’s office, Legat is fast asleep in his room at the hotel being used by the British, when there’s a knock and it’s Hartmann who tells him to get dressed. Hartmann takes him outside to car he’s (conveniently) borrowed and then drives Legat out of Munich into the countryside, to a village called Dachau and stops outside the barbed wire fence of the concentration camp there.

To my surprise, Legat is not impressed, and says officials in Britain know all about these camps, Stalin has as many if not more but they have to deal with him, too. Hartmann points out that within weeks, if the Nazis annex the Sudetenland, some Sudeten Germans, now free – communists and Jews and homosexuals – will be behind the wire being worked to death at Dachau. Yes, replies Legat, but then how many would survive the aerial bombing and street fighting which will occur if Chamberlain refuses a settlement and prompts war, which will end up with Czechoslovakia still being occupied and victims still being carted off by the SS.

This is an interesting debate but it has now lost the element of being a thriller. For me this felt like a purely cerebral, intellectual debate about what was at stake at Munich.

Anyway, it turns out this isn’t what Hartmann wanted to show him. Some Dachau guards notice the pair bickering in the car and turn the floodlights on them, so our guys beat a hasty retreat and Hartmann then drives Legat on for a further hour until they arrive at a remote mansion in the country with, Legat notices, the windows barred, no notices on the noticeboard in the cold hallway which smells of antiseptic.

Now we learn two things. Harris gives us a flashback to that summer of 1932, when, after walking in the woods, the three friends drove back into Munich and Leyna insisted on going to the apartment block where Hitler lived, surrounded by Nazi bodyguards.

As the would-be Führer (he was famous but had still not been made German Chancellor) leaves the building Leyna shouts loudly ‘NIECE-FUCKER’ at him. This was based on the rumours that Hitler had had an affair with his niece, Geli Raubel, who he forced to live with him in this apartment block and kept a maniacal watch over. In his absence, on 18 September 1931, Gaubl apparently shot herself dead with Hitler’s pistol. Was he having an affair with her? Was she pregnant with his child? Did she kill herself, or was it a put-up job by party apparatchiks who realised her existence threatened the Führer’s career. Whatever the truth (and historians argue about it to this day) there were enough lurid rumours around to allow Leyna to shout this insult at the future Führer as he emerged from his apartment, and to anger his SA guards, some of whom turn from protecting their boss and give chase to Leyna, Hartmann and Legat. The SA guards chase after our threesome who split up in a warren of alleyways.

Legat finds his way back to Hartmann and Leyna’s apartment. In the melee outside the apartment, someone had punched him in the eye and now it is swollen closed. Layna leans over Legat to apply a poultice, and he pulls her head down and kisses her. They make love. It wasn’t crystal clear to me earlier but now the text makes clear that Leyna was Hartmann’s girlfriend. So she has ‘betrayed’ him, and so has his best friend. Thus there is an emotional and sexual ‘betrayal’ at the heart of this plot which is about numerous betrayals, or betrayal on many levels: Hartmann betraying his Führer; Chamberlain betraying the Czechs, and now friend betraying friend. And so on.

This, frankly, felt a lot too ‘pat’ and convenient to me. Formulaic. It had the thumping inevitability of a cheap made-for-TV movie (which is how the book might well end up, since it has none of the really big action scenes required by a modern movie).

Now, in another development which seemed to me equally clichéd, it turns out that Leyna has ended up here in this mournful, isolated care home for the mentally defective. We now learn that: a) Hartmann found out about Leyna’s ‘betrayal’ and they split up b) she got more heavily into communist politics and married a communist who was subsequently killed in the Spanish Civil War, but c) she continued being an organiser of an underground communist newspaper till she was arrested by the Gestapo and badly beaten. Hartmann points out that Leyna was of Jewish heritage (which I don’t think anybody had mentioned earlier). With the result that the SS beat her unconscious, before or after carving a star of David into her back, and then threw her out of a third floor window. She survived in body, but was permanently brain damaged. Hartmann found out, and used his contacts to get her a place here in this out-of-the-way hospice.

This plot development, coming late on in the story, did three things for me:

1. It is a gross and characteristic example of the brutality of the Third Reich i.e. it has the effect of undermining all the diplomats fussing about precedence back in Munich. I think that is its intention, to show you the brutality behind the diplomatic veneer. But it has the unintended consequence, fictionally, imaginatively of making all the rest of the text, with its precise observations of diplomatic procedure, seem pale and irrelevant.

2. Indeed Hartmann picks up this idea, and makes an impassioned speech explaining that this is what he and Legat didn’t realise when they airily debated national Socialism back at Oxford, what their lofty Oxford education didn’t at all prepare them for: for the sheer bestial irrationality of the regime, its violence, which no diplomatic niceties can contain (‘This is what I have learned these past six years, as opposed to what is taught at Oxford: the power of unreason.’ p.374)

3. But I also couldn’t help the feminist in me rising up a bit and thinking – why does this point have to be made over the mute, unspeaking body of a tortured and disfigured woman – for Leyna is brain-damaged and recognises neither Hartmann nor Legat (p.373)?

Why is the central woman in their menage reduced to silence? Is it, in itself, a sort of feminist point, that the entire diplomatic circus, Hitler’s blusterings and Chamberlain’s prissy precisionism and French cowardice, all this describes the world of men, the men who would soon plunge the entire world into a war in which millions more totally innocent women and children would be murdered?

Back in Munich

Hartmann drives Legat back to his hotel in Munich as the last day of the Munich conference, and the novel, dawns.

Legat is shaving when he hears a noise in his bedroom and gets in just in time to see a man exiting by the door into the corridor. This scene reminded me of numerous Tintin books where the hero gives chase to the ‘strange man’ who turns a corner and disappears, leaving our hero to trudge back to his room half-dressed, bumping into a startled member of the delegation on the way.

Back in his room, Legat discovers that he has, of course, been burgled and that the incriminating Nazi memorandum from November 1937, the one which had been stolen and given to Hartmann to show to Chamberlain, who rejected it and told Legat to destroy – well, Legat like a fool hadn’t destroyed it, and he now discovers that whoever was searching his room found it. What an idiot he’s been. He has jeopardised his friend’s life – and all for nothing!

So Legat finishes dressing and goes along to the Prime Minister’s room where he just about persuades Chamberlain to let him (Legat) accompany Chamberlain to his last meeting with Hitler.

Chamberlain has had the bright idea of requesting a one-on-one meeting with Hitler in order to present him with the text of a speech he (Hitler) made a week earlier, in which he had pledged eternal friendship between Germany and Britain. Chamberlain has had his officials convert this speech into a pledge, a declaration, a binding document. He hopes to persuade Hitler to sign it and thus secure ‘peace in our time’.

And now, thanks to Harris’s clever interleaving of historical fact with spy fiction, Legat gets to witness this meeting at first hand, and so do we. We are given the entire scene in which a translator translates into German the couple of paragraphs in which Chamberlain has recast Hitler’s pledge of friendship between Britain and Germany and, to his slight surprise, Hitler signs it.

And now the delegation packs up, catches its taxis to the airport and flies home. It is only as they land that one of the pair of female typists who have accompanied the delegation, to type up the various notes and memos, corners Legat.

As Chamberlain gets out of the plane and holds an impromptu press conference, waving the little piece of paper with Hitler’s signature on it, this secretary tells Legat that she is also a recruit of British Security, tasked with keeping an eye on Legat. And that she had earlier broken into Legat’s bedroom, professionally searched it, found the incriminating memo and removed it; so that the burglar who Legat disturbed, and who ran off down the corridor, did not have the incriminating memo after all. Hartmann is in the clear.

And indeed in the last couple of pages we learn that Hartmann was not arrested by his hyper-suspicious boss, Sauer, and continued to serve the Nazi regime until he was involved in the 20 July 1944 bomb plot against Hitler, at which point he was arrested, interrogated and hanged.

Comment

This is a fascinating and deeply researched description of the Munich Crisis which opened my eyes about the details of the actual negotiations and the issues at stake. But despite early promise, the thriller element never caught fire for me. If you come to the book with the mindset that the whole future of Europe is at stake, then maybe you can make every one of the small tense incidents (secret documents, secret meetings) have a vast world-shattering importance.

But I came to it knowing what came afterwards (i.e. the entire conspiracy fails, is completely inconsequential) which continually poured cold water on attempts to get me excited. Even if both the protagonists had been arrested, tortured and bumped off, it wouldn’t ultimately have made any difference, not if you bear in mind what was about to follow i.e. the deaths of tens of millions of people.

For a thriller to work you have to believe the fate of the protagonists is of total, nailbiting importance. But nice enough though these two young chaps seemed to be, the book failed to make me care very much about them.

Shit and fuck

Part of this was because the characters just seemed too modern to me. They seemed contemporary, not creatures from what is becoming a remote past. Legat and Hartmann and many of the other characters completely lacked, for me, the old trappings, the genuinely old and remote mindset of that period – not only its embedded sexism and racism, but the entire imperial and class assumptions of their time and class. When you read fiction written at that time (late 1930s) you are continually pulled up sort by all kinds of period assumptions, about race and sex and class, not to mention that actual vocabulary and phraseology and turns of speech. The ruling class really did say ‘Top hole’, and ‘I say’, and ‘old chap’, and was drenched in expectations of privilege and deference.

None of this really came over in Harris’s book. Instead the characters came over as entirely up-to-date modern thriller protagonists. They think logically and clearly, with no emotion, like computers, uninfluenced by ideology or the beliefs of their era. Hartmann says he is a German nationalist, but nowhere in his conversations with Legat, or in his thoughts which we are privy to throughout the book, does any of that come across. He is a good German nationalist and yet his attitude to the Nazis’ anti-Semitism could come from a Guardian editorial.

There is little sense that these people belonged to a different time, with its own, now long-lost values and assumptions.

A small but symptomatic indication of this was Harris’s use of the words shit and fuck. His characters think ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’ in a way you would never find in, say Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh writing in 1938. Hartmann sees roadsweepers and thinks not that they are shovelling up horse droppings, but cleaning horse ‘shit’.

When Hartmann is lying in the bed of his mistress, Frau Winter, he notes the photo of her husband on her cabinet and wonder if she fantasises, when they make love, that she is ‘still fucking Captain Winter’.

The half a dozen times Harris uses the word ‘fuck’ completed the process of making his characters sound like post-1960s, brutally explicit, modern-day thriller protagonists. The use of ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’, for me, not only upset the register of the narrative but begged the bigger question of whether he was at all inhabiting the minds of the people of the day – or simply ventriloquising them from an irredeemably 21st century perspective.

Without a doubt the book is a fascinating account of the nitty-gritty of the Munich meeting, of the nuts and bolts of key events and main players – but it failed for me a) as a thriller, because the Big Secret which is meant to underpin a thriller in fact is revealed a hundred pages before the end and turns out not to matter at all – and b) as a fictional attempt to enter the minds and mindsets of these long-dead people.

All the people felt like they were just waiting to be turned into the characters of another film adaptation, an adaptation in which all the good guys will have impeccably #metoo and politically correct attitudes about everything, who will be fighting for decency as we define it in 2019 – instead of being the much more difficult and potentially unlikeable characters you’d expect to meet from that period.

Munich is an effectively written account of the events, with a clever but ultimately disappointing thriller plot slipped in – but not a very good fictional guide or insight into the lost values and psychology of that remote and ever-more-distant era.


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

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.

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris (2013)

At some point I seem to have ceased to be an army officer and become a detective. I pound pavements. I interview witnesses. I collect evidence. (p.185)

The Dreyfus Affair

In December 1894 the French Jewish army officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, was tried and found guilty of passing French military secrets to the Germans and packed off to Devil’s Island, where he served five years penal servitude in gruelling conditions. But in 1896 evidence began to come to light suggesting the real spy was someone else, and implying that Dreyfus was the victim of a shabby kangaroo court, a victim of the widespread anti-Semitic and anti-German mood of the army. (Not only was he a Jew, he was a rich Jew, moreover his family came from the eastern province of Alsace, which France had lost to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and had stayed there instead of fleeing the enemy, as ‘good patriots’ had done.)

Slowly pressure mounted for a retrial and the Dreyfus case became a lightning rod for the divisions which had divided France since the 1789 revolution – with right-wing, pro-Army and generally Catholic forces on one side, convinced there was some German, Jewish conspiracy to undermine France and her patriotic virtues – opposed to liberal, freethinking, anti-militarists on the other side, equally convinced the whole thing was a travesty of justice, an example of military high-handedness, a blatant cover-up of incompetence at the highest levels.

The whole affair dragged on for over a decade, with Dreyfus released from Devil’s Island and accepting a pardon in 1899 but battling on to establish his innocence, securing a re-investigation in 1903, then a retrial in 1904, which led to his complete exoneration and his restoration to the army with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in 1906.

Harris has written a long, detailed and gripping recreation of the affair. It opens dramatically with Dreyfus being paraded in front of a baying mob of 20,000 Parisians and several army divisions, having his conviction publicly read out, his epaulettes torn off, his sword smashed in two, then dragged off to prison and a long sea voyage to his incarceration in the hellhole of Devil’s Island.

Georges Picquart

Harris has soaked himself in the history of the affair and the culture of the period – as the Afterword listing the works of reference he used amply indicates – and he manages to involve us in the convoluted series of conspiracies and investigations, which helps to make this book itself his longest (at 478 pages).

I was daunted by this sheer size and by the notorious complexity of the subject matter, but ended up being so gripped by Harris’s treatment that I read it late into the night and ended up wondering if it might be his best, and most gripping, novel – which is saying a lot after the compelling thrills of Fatherland, Archangel and Enigma.

It is a minor miracle (partly indebted to the historical facts, partly to Harris’s grasp of its complexity) that he has managed to identify and use the consciousness of just one first-person narrator to take us through the elaborate events and legal processes which is what the affair consists of.

This central character is Major (soon to be promoted Colonel) Georges Picquart, a bachelor of 40, who was a real historical figure right at the heart of the affair – present at Dreyfus’s arrest, tasked with reporting the first, secret, trial directly to the Minister for War, as a result promoted to head the Statistical Section (a secret intelligence section of the army’s intelligence division, the Deuxième Bureau) which had in fact gathered much of the evidence used against Dreyfus.

Here he slowly assembles the documents, the forgeries, the testimony from witnesses, which gradually cohere to suggest that Dreyfus was not guilty, that the real spy passing secrets to the German military attaché, von Schwartzkoppen, was an arrogant, loose-living officer named Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, and that Dreyfus was elaborately framed by a cabal of officers and their superiors who wanted to find a scapegoat and hush up the initial spying allegations quickly with oh what dire and unintended consequences.

Thus we witness all the key opening scenes through Picquart’s eyes – Dreyfus’s arrest, trial, and his big set piece humiliation in front of baying crowds. Because of Picquart’s position he also reads the pitiful correspondence between Dreyfus – with its harrowing descriptions of his solitary confinement in the tiny rocky islet in the Atlantic – and his poor wife, Lucie, left looking after their two young children. Picquart’s superiors are the Head of the Deuxième Bureau, of the General Staff and the War Minister himself, who we get to observe close up on numerous occasions, just a few among the cast of scores and scores of historical personages that Harris brings to life with astonishing attention to detail and verisimilitude.

And then we follow Picquart into the minutiae of the various investigations and surveillances he runs, and experience with him the sense of doubt, then suspicion, and then horrified certainty as he realises the French Army has convicted the wrong man and let the real spy go free. We follow his attempts to alert his superiors to what he has discovered, only to find them cold and unresponsive – either because they were directly involved in the original frame-up or because they realise that admitting it will expose the army to ridicule, and that the most senior figures – the head of the General Staff, the war minister himself – will be compromised.

After refusing to obey direct orders to close his investigations, after refusing to stop gathering evidence against Esterhazy, Picquart is finally unceremoniously shipped to a remote dumping ground in colonial Tunisia, transferred to an infantry brigade, and, when the result of his investigations start to leak into the newspapers, becomes an outcast among his brother officers, a traitor, a Jew-lover.

After putting up with the Tunisian heat and boredom for 6 months he makes a momentous decision, returns to Paris incognito, and hands over a detailed dossier of all the evidence to an old family friend, seasoned lawyer Louis Leblois, who himself hands it over to the Vice President of the French Senate, Auguste Scheurer-Kestner.

Back in Tunisia, Picquart watches from afar as a big political and press campaign begins to roll to get the Dreyfus case reopened.

But his superiors are almost certain he is responsible for the leak and soon he is himself subject to crude intimidation and then cunningly framed by the very staff in the Statistical Section who he used to manage. He is summoned back to Paris and tried using evidence – letters and telegrams – which have all been concocted to make it seem like he himself is a dangerous spy, and spends a long time in various prisons in and around Paris, trying, like Dreyfus, not to go mad.

Meanwhile the army ransacks his apartment, exposes his affair with a married woman – thus ruining her life – sets up another stage-managed trial to incriminate him, and generally abuses its power in every way conceivable to frame another innocent man.

In the final section Picquart loses all illusions about  his enemy, and openly collaborates with a committee of the Dreyfus supporters who now call themselves ‘Dreyfusards’, including the left-wing politician and future French Prime Minister George Clemenceau and the novelist Émile Zola. It is in January 1898 that Zola publishes his famous front-page article J’Accuse, for the first time naming all the guilty men Picquart has assembled information about, minutely detailing their roles in the various fabrications and cover-ups – a historic publication which only manages to get him arrested and tried for libel.

Right to the end of these tortuous proceedings, investigations, trials, retrials, conspiracies and incarcerations, Harris keeps up the totally addictive grip of his fast-moving, factual but beautifully paced narrative. I couldn’t put it down.

Pace and empathy

Why are Harris’s novels so compulsively readable? It’s a long book – 484 pages in the Arrow paperback – but it flies by, even with its freight of historical, legal and cultural complexity.

It’s due to at least two things: Harris’s clear, readable and attractive prose, and his very canny pacing of the way the central ‘secret’ – Dreyfus’s innocence, the identity of the real spy – is revealed.

In fact, this central structure of the ‘slow reveal’ is identical to the ones he used in his earlier thrillers: Fatherland where the hero slowly pieces together the evidence which leads to the revelation of the Holocaust, Archangel where the hero slowly pieces together the evidence which leads to the revelation that Stalin had a son and heir who is still alive, Enigma where the hero slowly pieces together the evidence that there is a traitor at the Bletchley Park code-breaking centre.

The fundamental journey is the same but the pleasure is in Harris’s tremendous skill at surprising the reader with carefully placed clues and insights. Somehow Harris takes you completely into the mind of his protagonists so that, although the reader knows in advance that there was a Holocaust and that Dreyfus was innocent, we still share the same growing suspicion, shock and horror as the central figure.

Even when, by half way through, the ‘secret’ is out and Picquart is fully convinced of Dreyfus’s innocence, he still manages to grip the reader by having us so fully on the side of his hero: as he anxiously waits in his Tunisian exile for events to develop, as he journeys alone and scared to Paris, as he has secret meetings with his lawyer friend, and then through all the rigours of his own arrest, imprisonment, rigged impeachment and further incarceration.

By this stage we are nearly as angry as Picquart, not only with the injustice of Dreyfus’s imprisonment, but with the combination of crude blundering and blackmail masterminded by his craven army superiors and their pawns and agents. And this anger, and an anxiety to see how and when the truth prevails, become the driving force of the reader’s involvement.

Style

I’ve noted in my reviews of other Harris’s other thrillers, that he varies his style to suit the subject matter and period: Enigma used a prose style just slightly tinged with 1940s slang and phraseology; The Ghost skillfully captures the middle-brow, humorous, self-deprecation of an easygoing modern-day jobbing author; The Fear Index is rich with terminology from the computer science and financial markets which are its setting.

Similarly, An Officer and A Spy mostly functions with what you could call Basic Thriller Style, a curt clipped statement of the facts.

We take a taxi across the river and I pay off the driver just south of the École Militaire. The remainder of the journey we complete on foot. The section of the rue de Sèvres in which the hotel stands is narrow and poorly lit; the Manche is easy to miss. It occupies a narrow, tumbledown house, hemmed in between a butcher’s shop and a bar: the sort of place where commercial travellers might lay their heads for a night and assignations can no doubt be paid for by the hour. Desvernines goes in first: I follow. The concierge is not at his desk. Through a curtain of beads I can see people eating supper in the little dining room. There is no escalator. The narrow stairs creak with every tread. (p.403)

After a while I realised that the very fact that he is a soldier adds a slight but detectable extra amount of curtness and clippedness. He is a military man used to thinking in terms of fact, figures, orders and instructions, and a Frenchman trained in clarity and logic.

But this is combined with Harris’s marvellous gift for selecting just the right detail to convey a scene or character. There is a tremendous economy to his writing and an impressive tact: just so much, just what is needed to paint a scene, and no more.

The following Thursday evening, at seven precisely, I sit in a corner of the cavernous yellow gloom of the platform café of the gare Saint-Lazare, sipping an Alsace beer. The place is packed; the double-hinged door swings back and forth with a squeak of springs. The roar of chat and movement inside and the whistles and shouts and percussive bursts of steam from the locomotives outside make it a perfect place not to be overheard. I have managed to save a table with two seats that gives me a clear view of the entrance. (p.109)

The present

Another very distinctive aspect of the narrative is that it is all in the present tense.

It was a considerable risk to do it this, as a narrative told in the continuous present can appear pretentious or stilted in the wrong hands. But Harris really is such a brilliant and intelligent writer that it works entirely as he intends it to, by creating a permanent present in which the narrator – like the reader – has no idea what is going to happen next. It adds tremendously to the tension and anxiety of the book, continually driving you on every page to experience the hero’s doubts and anxieties.

For several minutes I sit motionless, holding the photograph. I might be made of marble, a sculpture by Rodin: The Reader. What really freezes me, even more than the matching hand-writing, is the content – the obsession with artillery, the offer to have a manual copied out verbatim, the obsequious salesman’s tone – it is Esterhazy to the life. (p.162)

We sit with him. We are holding the new evidence, transfigured by its implications. 479 is a lot of pages to keep up this balancing act, but Harris does it brilliantly.

The hero as modern man

Coming to this novel after reading a series of Alan Furst’s historical spy novels prompts the thought that what Furst’s and Harris’s novels share is the essential amiability of the central characters.

Compare Georges Picquart with Fredric Stahl, the protagonist of Furst’s 2012 novel, Mission To Paris. They are both good eggs. Furst’s hero is as immune to the prejudices of his time (the 1930s) as Georges Picquart is to those of his (the 1890s).

For example, both of them are repelled by anti-Semitism. This was an extremely common prejudice throughout Europe, at all levels of society until well past the Second World War. Harris’s and Furst’s novels testify to this, the Harris novel tracking the rise of virulent anti-Semitism as the Dreyfus case drags on. And yet both these heroes don’t have a prejudiced bone in their body. They never give in to even the slightest racist thought for even a second. Not even in their darkest moments. In this respect, they are whiter than white, politically correct. Their instinctive revulsion from and contempt for the anti-Semitism of those around them withstands the toughest scrutiny of the modern liberal reader.

Similarly, both of them are immensely respectful of women; never let slip a sexist comment, don’t belittle women in word or deed; indeed, they both have the same kind of sensuous, smoochy affairs with women that require or imply that the women in their lives are themselves highly sexually aware, ‘modern’ and ‘liberated’ ie surprisingly anticipating modern attitudes.

Furst and Harris heroes are, in other words, modern men who reflect very accurately the most advanced, enlightened thinking of the 21st century – transplanted back into the clothes of a man in 1938 and 1895, respectively. If you actually read novelists from 1938 (Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene) let alone 1895 (Thomas Hardy, Henry James) you quickly discover they:

a) thought and wrote in a much more convoluted and less factual style than we do
b) were casually racist and sexist, not to mention snobbish, elitist and intolerant, without realising they’d said anything wrong – because those were the common values of the time
c) were very tight-lipped about sex, if mentioned at all

Not only that, but Picquart is winningly cultured and civilised. Harris goes out of his way to make him a man of culture, who knows a particular Paris church is famous because Saint-Saens plays the organ there, and who attends a performance of Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune conducted by the composer himself, a man who whiles away boring journeys translating Dostoyevsky novels from the original Russian.

A mark of his urbanity and his ability to rise above petty mindedness (unlike so many of those around him) is his sense of humour.

Outwardly, I hope, I wear my usual mask of detachment, even irony, for there has never been a situation, however dire, even this one, that did not strike me as containing at least some element of the human comedy. (p.355)

Finally, and – crucially – these heroes are much the same at the end of the book as they were at the start. This is what keeps thrillers, by and large, from being considered ‘literature’. The characters undergo little real change. Picquart sees a lot, and tells us he experiences a lot, but he still uses the same snappy, confident, urbane tone at the end of the book as at the start. He’s learned a lot but is still essentially the same guy.

An indication of this lack of development comes right at the end of the novel. The payoff, the epilogue, the conclusion could have drawn a number of wide-ranging points from Dreyfus’s story: for example, what it tells us about the divided nature of French society, about French defeatism before the Great War (and indeed the Second World War), about the widespread presence of anti-Semitism in even an ‘enlightened’ Western nation, and so on.

Instead of opening up into historical perspectives, though, Harris deliberately and, I think, a little disappointingly, focuses the story right down to a Spielbergesque final moment.

In the epilogue (and, amazingly, this is true) the shamed Picquart, once a complete outcast from the French army has himself ended up becoming French Minister for War, and is asked for an interview by the newly restored Lieutenant Colonel Dreyfus. Both men are embarrassed as Dreyfus, finally, after their long odyssey together, says thank you. Picquart says shucks I could never have done it without you. Dreyfus replies, ‘No, my general, you did it because it was your duty.’ (p.479)

In other words, this final scene, for all the brilliance of the preceding pages, I think emphasises the essentially simple psychology, the innocence and apple pie goodness, of Harris’s hero. He and the reader have been on an extraordinary journey of investigation and understanding – but he is as solid, noble and conscientious at the bitter end as he had been at the innocent start.

What the thriller can tell us

Thus, lack of character development is one of the most obvious drawbacks of ‘the thriller’ as a genre, even very good thrillers like Harris’s.

But that said, thriller can do lots of things which more ‘serious literature’ can’t. They can have more breadth of character, range of incident, more extreme situations. Above all the thriller is interested in violence, fear, paranoia, surveillance, suspicion, enemies and the mindset which copes with constant threat, continual alertness and planning. It exercises ‘the predator mind’. And these, regrettably, are situations a lot of ordinary literature-reading people found themselves suddenly thrown into throughout the terrible 20th century.

So many of the thrillers I’ve read over the past two years self-consciously refer to the fact that this or that situation could be straight out of a shilling shocker, or cheap thriller or Hollywood movie – as if by confronting the fact that they’re using conventional thriller clichés and stereotypes they can somehow overcome it. Harris says something more interesting. As the narrator gives his lawyer a letter to be opened by the president of France ‘in the event of my death’, he is aware of how silly the situation is.

I suppose he considers it melodramatic, the sort of device one might encounter in a railway ‘thriller’. I would have felt the same a year ago. Now I have come to see that thrillers may contain more truths than all Monsieur Zola’s social realism put together. (p.303)

Thrillers deal with people plunged into extreme situations and, for all their obvious shortcomings, people are in fact plunged into extreme situations every day, and thrillers do tell some kinds of truths, not subtle truths about human nature, maybe; but truths about the human mind and the desperate measures it sometimes has to resort to.

Implications

As referred to, Harris is a writer of great intelligence and forensic ability, a lawyer or journalist’s ability to grasp the detail of a very complex subject and rewrite it in an orderly, comprehensible and indeed gripping way.

I mentioned the economy and tact of his style, above. But there is also the economy and tact of his entire approach. Although I don’t quite like the sentimental ending when Dreyfus and Picquart finally shake hands, I do like what Harris doesn’t do: he doesn’t preach. He doesn’t draw the umpteen conclusions he could have about Dreyfus being one of the first political prisoners, or a victim of a state cover-up, or about the ineptness of spy agencies or the stupidity of so much military ‘intelligence’, or the broader historical echoes: Dreyfus was a kind of proto-martyr for what would become a flood of state-sponsored show trials in totalitarian Germany and Russian in the 1930s and in other authoritarian countries since.

Instead the eerie anticipations of later regimes are left entirely to the reader to pick up. He compliments his reader’s intelligence with his restraint. Just the use of the word ‘dossier’ to refer to all the made-up evidence against Dreyfus is enough to remind the reader of the ‘dodgy dossier’ containing the ‘sexed-up intelligence’ which helped take the UK into America’s invasion of Iraq. This and other fleeting pre-echoes and premonitions are left entirely for the reader to detect, or not.

Subtlety. Tact. Discretion. These are just some among Harris’s many wonderful gifts as an unmatched writer of intelligent historical thrillers.

Dramatis personae

  • Alfred Dreyfus, captain in the French army, Jewish, wealthy, aloof, when some documents which imply that someone is passing French military secrets to the German military attaché are discovered by the French Deuxième Bureau, he is framed, evidence is twisted and handwriting experts are suborned to blame the entirely guiltless Dreyfus, who is tried in a secret military trial, convicted to life imprisonment, ritually stripped of military honours in front of a vast Paris crowd, and shipped to a tiny rock off the South American coast where a tiny prison and contingent of guards is kept solely to keep him in solitary confinement, with no letters or books, for five years.
  • Lucie Dreyfus, his wife, Pierre his son, Jeanne his daughter
  • Mathieu Dreyfus, his brother who leads the campaign for his release
  • Bernard Lazare, Jewish journalist the
  • Major then Colonel Georges Picquart
  • Anna, his older sister
  • Pauline Romazotti, grew up near the Picquart family, now married to Philippe Monnier, official at the Foreign Ministry, with whom Georges is having an affair
  • Louis Leblois, old schoolfriend and lawyer
  • Aimery de Comminges, baron de Saint-Lary
  • Blanche de Commanges, one of Picquart’s lovers
  • General Charles-Arthur Gonse, 56, Chief of French Military Intelligence (p.29)
  • General Mercier, Minister of War, to whom Picquart reports back an eye witness account of the Dreyfus kangaroo court
  • President Casimir-Perier, president of France
  • Major Henry, official in the Statistical Section of the Deuxième Bureau, a red-faced often drunk man who, it emerges, played a key role in framing Dreyfus
  • Captain Lauth of the Statistical Section
  • Monsieur Gribelin, the spidery archivist of the Statistical Section
  • Colonel Sandherr, Picquart’s predecessor as head of the Statistical Section ie he oversaw the faking of the evidence which framed Dreyfus
  • Jean-Alfred Desverine, young Sûreté officer Picquart gets seconded to his Statistical Section
  • Ducasse, young officer Picquart sets up in a rented flat opposite the German embassy in Paris to record comings and goings
  • Moises Lehmann, forger Picquart uses
  • Guénée, Statistical Section operative who has been assigned to surveil the Dreyfus family
  • General Foucault, French military attaché to Berlin
  • Armand du Paty de Clam, instrumental in forging evidence implicating Dreyfus
  • Operation Benefactor, the surveillance operation on Esterhazy instigate by Picquart
  • General Billot
  • General Boisdeffre, Chief of the French General Staff
  • von Schwartzkoppen, German military attaché in Paris
  • Alessandro Panizzardi, Italian military attaché in Paris
  • General Leclerc, Picquart’s commanding officer in Tunisia after he is transferred to the 4th Tunisian Rifles
  • Senator Auguste Scheurer-Kestner, Vice President of the Senate to whom Picquart’s friend, the lawyer Leblois, gives Picquart’s dossier proving that Esterhazy is the spy and Dreyfus innocent
  • Colonel Armand Mercier-Milon, old friend of Picquart’s who is tasked with escorting him from Marseilles to Paris and there keeping him under guard
  • General de Pellieux, tough soldier leading the investigation into Picquart’s alleged treason and alleged fabrication of evidence against Esterhazy

Credit

An Officer and A Spy by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson in 2013. All quotes and references are to the 2012 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.

The Fear Index by Robert Harris (2011)

As most of you will be aware, the Chicago Board of Exchange operates what is known as the S and P 500 Volatility Index, or VIX. this has been running, in one form or another, for seventeen years. It’s a ticker, for want of a better word, tracking the price of options – calls and puts – on stocks traded in the S and P 500. If you want the math, it’s calculated as the square root of the par variance swap rate for a thirty-day term, quoted as an annualised variance. If you don’t want the math, let’s just say that what it does is show the implied volatility of the market for the coming month. It goes up and down minute by minute. The higher the index, the greater the uncertainty in the market, so traders call it “the fear index”.’ (p.115)

This is a very good, very intelligent novel, but the least satisfying of Harris’s five thrillers. Of course there’s a plot, but the plot is spread out among a number of characters – about four main ones; it includes a number of flashbacks and memories to earlier events, which pad out, slow or stop the momentum; and above all, it is heavily themed in a way I didn’t find totally convincing.

The plot

Multi-millionaire American banker Dr Alex Hoffmann is woken in the middle of the night in the high-security, $60- million home he recently bought near the shore of Lake Geneva, to realise there’s an intruder in his house. Someone has got past the 9-foot fence, the locked gates and through the password-protected door, to rummage around in the razor sharp knives in his kitchen. This is where Alex disturbs him. Next thing he knows, he is coming round as the police and his distraught wife revive him. He was clobbered with a fire extinguisher and, as well as a lot of blood, has lost some mental function so that he’s struggling to remember what happened.

He is taken to hospital where he has a CAT scan. This reveals no major damage but the consultant points out a number of white dots on the scan: could be tiny blood leaks but could be other things, for example early signs of dementia. Scared, Hoffmann refuses a follow-up MRI scan and also refuses advice to stay in hospital for 24 hours. He has a busy day ahead of him, and so does the reader, for the events of this 390-page novel take place over the course of one frantic day.

Hoffmann goes to work, meets up with his partner Hugo Quarrel and then plays a key part in his company’s presentation to, and then lunch with, a group of seriously rich investors in his fund. But the day is interrupted by a number of quirks and oddities:

The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals

Someone has sent him a first edition of Charles Darwin’s classic book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), and put the bookmark of the seller in the section about fear, which is full of explanations of the evolutionary origins of fear, and also Victorian photos of human specimens exhibiting fear. But who? He asks his wife, he asks his partner – they both say it wasn’t them. Finally he phones the bookseller, in Belgium, and is nonplussed to be told that he bought the book for himself, via email, and using an account in the Cayman Islands. What?

The figure of fear

In the taxi from the hospital, Hoffmann is shocked to see the man who attacked him in his house sitting at the back of a passing tram, a thin, older man with a ponytail of grey hair. Not only is his shock renewed, but the sighting confirms his impression that the man looks like one of the illustrations from the Darwin book! What is going on?

Gabby’s exhibition

Later that morning he attends the opening of an art exhibition devoted to the works of his beautiful English wife, Gabby. Hoffmann is nervous as he doesn’t really like people, let alone large groups of rich people all bitching at cocktail parties. But he’s not as nervous as Gabby, who’s first proper show this is. The works are all based on one technological idea: MRI scans show the inside of the body, the brain, organic bodies, as layers. Gabby had the idea of printing each successive layer of selected MRI scans onto thin sheets of glass which she suspends above each other, creating a sliced 3D image. She’s done images of a human brain, a body, a foetus, each sliced into glass wafers.

But, for the purposes of the story, the point of this long scene is that the gallery owner, at its climax, goes round and sticks a red sticker on each work indicating that it’s been sold. Everyone expected some to go (Gabby was nervous that none would be sold), but all of them? It is unlikely, improbable, and even embarrassing. It makes it look like a stitch-up and, importantly, means that none of Geneva’s great and good, all elaborately invited to the show, even have a chance to buy one.

Puzzled and, in some cases, insulted, well before the gallery owner has finished placing the stickers, the crowd has begun to drift away. Gabby is furious and has a stand-up row with Hoffmann, convinced that he bought them in a cack-handed attempt to be ‘romantic’ or ‘generous’, but in fact humiliating her in front of ‘everyone who is anyone’. He swears he didn’t, but she runs off, furious.

Gana’s worries

Upset and confused, Hoffmann takes a cab back to the shiny offices of Hoffmann Investment Technologies just in time for the scheduled presentation to the assembled investors. The core of the presentation is Hoffmann’s explanation of the algorithm his company uses to assess the market. Named VIXAL-4, it is tasked with identifying signs of anxiety or fear in market sentiment, and then ‘shorting’, ie selling stocks or other securities or commodities in advance of acquiring them, with the aim of making a profit when the price falls. (Before the presentation, his small management team, particularly the Risk Manager, Gana Rajamani, try to buttonhole Hoffmann with their fears that the VIXAL program is buying too many shorted stocks, thus going beyond acceptable defined risk thresholds, but he brushes them aside.)

Hoffmann’s presentation

Hoffmann’s presentation is, in a way, the author’s message, as he gives a brisk summary of philosophical thinking about humankind, which emphasises risk, fear and anxiety. Anyone who can master and control this emotion, can control the world. VIXAL-4 is only an algorithm but it is the smartest yet created for identifying risk and fear, and then co-ordinating buying activity, in anticipation of market falls in value and prices.

Fear then murder

As the presentation draws to a climax Hoffmann sees out the window, at a bus stop opposite, the thin, pony-tailed man who attacked him. He interrupts his presentation to bolt out the door, run down the stairs, out into the street and follow the man as he disappears down an alleyway. He chases through narrowing streets until he realises he is in the seedy brothel district, and is astonished to get a text giving an address. When he tentatively gets to the address, and climbs the stairs and opens the door, he is, sure enough, greeted by the lank, grey-haired assailant, who immediately tries to attack him. There is a prolonged and gruesome struggle, with the assailant repeatedly attacking, until Hoffmann, overcome by fear and anger, throttles him to death. He ties shoe laces round his neck and hangs the corpse from a wardrobe door in a feeble attempt to dress the murder up as a suicide. Then he turns on the laptop the man had – and is horrified to read extensive extracts around the idea of a willing victim searching for someone to murder them via the internet – and to emails which appear to have been sent by him directly to the attacker, asking him to kill him. Like the Darwin book he never ordered. Like Gabby’s artworks he never bought.

The conspiracy

By this stage I think it is a slow reader who hasn’t realised that the computer programme is out of control and is clearly mimicking Hoffmann’s behaviour – or putting into action his deepest wishes. Hoffmann, being slower on the uptake than the reader, thinks that someone is out to get him – a real person or rival is trying to frame him or drive him crazy.

Walton’s story

This hypothesis is reinforced by a separate plotline concerning a former colleague of Hoffmann’s at CERN the physics research institute where Hoffmann originally worked. Out of the blue this man, Professor Robert Walton, turned up at the exhibition of Gabby’s art works. Hoffmann denies he invited him but Walton claims he emailed him personally. Now the distraught Gabby takes Walton up on an open invitation to visit him at CERN.

Here she gets the visitors’ tour and some history of CERN, dedicated to unravelling the mystery of the smallest sub-atomic particles etc. For the purposes of the novel, though, she hears Hoffmann’s backstory for the first time: namely, that he was recruited in the mid-1990s as a keen young PhD student, and immediately applied himself to devising programs to handle the vast trillions of data points which the experiments were producing. He developed a computer program which was capable of identifying which data was significant, and learning from its experience. As you might expect, the program began to spread beyond its initial host computers, learning by experience how to overcome firewalls and jump into other systems, until the CERN authorities eventually shut it down and terminated Hoffmann’s line of work. He had worked 20 hour days for months and, unable to accept that his baby was being destroyed, had a massive nervous breakdown and was sacked from CERN.

Good God, Gabby thinks. Is Hoffmann now in the grip of another mental collapse? Has part of his mind done all the mystery acts – ordered the Darwin book, bought all Gabby’s art, and so on – while the conscious part of his mind is completely unaware, and even denies it?

Hoffmann’s therapist

Craziness is confirmed as a possibility when we follow Hoffmann to another part of the city where he reluctantly knocks on the door of the psychotherapist who treated him when he had a nervous breakdown 6 years earlier. Dishevelled, bleeding from his head wound and bruised from the savage fight in the seedy hotel room, Hoffmann presents a threatening appearance which he doesn’t improve by, after initial polite conversation with the lady psychiatrist, pushing her out of the way so he can access her records on him. There he is horrified to find that, in their most secret confidential sessions, he spoke of his deep desire to end it all by being murdered in exactly the same words which were used in the emails to his mystery attacker. Someone must have hacked into the psychotherapist’s records, cut and pasted his words, and gone trawling the internet for an assassin. My God, someone really wants to kill him. Hoffmann hears the psychotherapist’s staff calling the police, and barges his way out of the building and into a cab.

Who put them under surveillance?

When Hoffmann arrives back at the HIT offices, looking terrible and sounding like he really is having a nervous breakdown, he has a brainwave. The screensaver on the attacker’s laptop shows him, Hoffmann, leaning back in his plush expensive chair in his office. Suddenly he realises it was taken from a spot directly above him in the ceiling. Appearing utterly frenzied and mad to his terrified partner, Hugo, Hoffmann stands on a chair and rips down the fire alarm unit in the ceiling and, concealed within it, finds a webcam. Now he thinks about it there’s one of these in every room in the building and – my God! – at his luxury home.

Hoffmann calls in their highly paid security consultant, Maurice Genoud, who astonishes Hoffmann and Quarry (though not, by this stage, the reader) by revealing that he, Hoffmann, ordered him to instal these webcams in every room in the office and at his home. No, he never did, Hoffmann shouts furiously. At which point Genoud brings in his laptop and calmly shows him the series of emails he, Hoffmann, sent him, Genoud, with detailed instructions for their installation. Not only that, but the emails give detailed requests for security to be set up at the new ‘server farm’ in a remote industrial estate on the outskirts of Geneva. What? This is the first time Hoffmann or Quarry have heard about this place.

VIXAL-4

In the background during all of this, the quants, the market analysts, are getting more concerned about the wild positions VIXAL-4 is committing the company to. In particular, it has withdrawn all the ‘hedges’ ie the safe bets, which are meant to balance out the speculative profitable bets. Their Risk Manager, Gana Rajamani, chooses this moment to insist that they close VIXAL-4 down. Responding to this clamour, Hoffmann reluctantly walks into the room containing all the servers and turns off the power. The computers go off. There is silence in the computer room. But when he walks back into the main office Quarry and the quants are still waiting for him to do it. They haven’t noticed any change. VIXAL-4 is trading more furiously than ever. The industrial estate! What if a parallel system has been set up there?

Gana is murdered

Gana begins further criticism of the programme which merely prompts Hoffmann to launch a tirade against his priggish cowardice, and Quarry, the hatchet man, to sack Gana on the spot. Gana clears his desk, walks to the lift, whose doors ping open, he steps through them and – disappears. Disappears? The lift wasn’t there; he stepped into empty space!

Any sci-fi fan will by now be completely sure that the computer program has taken over. It heard Gana threaten it and, like Hal in 2001 A Space Odyssey, and all the other rogue computers in thousands of sci-fi stories, it is now defending itself from attack.

Hoffmann runs down to the basement, prises part the elevator doors with a car jack and, sure enough, discovers Gana’s body splatted on the bottom of the elevator shaft. Not only that but, as in a thousand horror movies, the shaft door slam shut and the elevator begins descending towards him at top speed. It is only by holding the thick steel jack vertically, that Hoffmann halts the elevator’s descent and survives in the foot or so of space beneath it and the floor. Then it goes back up and he is able to prise open the lift shaft doors and escape.

Fiery climax

Now his mission is clear: to stop VIXAL-4 which has clearly acquired a mind of its own. He hijacks a car from a bemused Austrian businessman and drives at top speed out to the grim industrial suburb of Zimeysa. On the way he stops at a gas station to buy five petrol containers, rags and matches. Yes he is planning to blow it up. By now Leclerc the Swiss policeman who had been called in to respond to the original mugging of Hoffmann at his home, and was told by his boss to stay with the case, has also found the murder scene in the seedy hotel, been called by the irate psychotherapist and arrived at the offices of Hoffmann Investment to find it in turmoil. And then to discover what is left of Gana’s body at the bottom of the lift shaft. Reports of a wild-eyed man buying petrol at the gas station alert him, Quarry and Gabby to Hoffmann’s destination and Hoffmann has barely passed the installation’s security barriers and passwords before a whole posse of police cars and fire engines appear at the gates.

Briefly, Hoffmann explores the strange intricate installation the program has designed for itself, pouring petrol as he goes. Gabby and Quarry get as far as the door and beg him to leave but, with one last adoring look at his baby, Hoffmann flicks the cigarette lighter and WHOOMPF! it all goes up in flames. there are a terrifying few pages as Hoffmann finds himself running through the maze of rooms and compartments before emerging onto the roof as a human torch and plummeting to the ground below.

Epilogue

However:

a) Hoffmann survives, for in the final pages we are told he is in hospital, swathed in bandages and burn cream.

b) When Quarry finally makes it back to the Hoffmann Investment Technologies office in the evening of what has been a very long day – he discovers the quants all still sitting looking at their screens, even though it’s past 8pm. Why? Because VIXAL-4 is still trading. Hoffmann blew up the remote computer centre but — the programme has obviously installed itself somewhere else, in the cloud, throughout the internet, everywhere. And not only is it still functioning, it is still making huge profits for the company. After is initial shock, Quarry leans back in his chair. The police will charge Hoffmann with various misdeeds. They know he went mad and tried to destroy a computer centre. But they don’t know why. Maybe Quarry should relax and let the programme carry on making him a billionaire. Perhaps, after all, this is the future, and it is unstoppable!

The characters

Dr Alex Hoffmann An American, Hoffman came to Switzerland in the 1990s to work at CERN on the Large Hadron Collider. He worked there for 6 years designing programs to manage the vast amount of data generated by the Collider, but got into trouble with the authorities for creating an artificial intelligence programme which threatened to run out of control. A chance meeting with Hugo Quarrel, just as CERN were closing down his project, persuaded Hoffmann that he could apply the same technique – devising an algorithm which would learn which data was significant – to analysing money and risk. He’s not really interested in money – or people – except as expressions of data and behaviour.

Gabby the modern artist. This makes it rather unlikely that he should therefore have hooked up with the astonishingly beautiful Gabby, an Englishwoman who did an art degree in Manchester. She, for her part, is uncomfortable with his astonishing, obscene wealth. A memorable incident in their relationship was when he bought a whole tank of lobsters in an up-market restaurant purely to release them back into the sea. During their blazing row at the art gallery, she reveals that she hates the vast house he has only just bought and moved them into.

Hoffmann’s business partner Hugo Quarry, gladhanding and pressing the flesh but Hoffmann and his investment algorithms are the heart of Hoffmann Investment Technologies – with its swish ten-story paperless office and 60 quants or quantitative analysts aka quants (p.72) working silently at their computer screens, on an average annual salary of half a million each (p.73)

The Swiss detective Jean-Philippe Leclerc is called to the scene of the break-in at Hoffmann’s mansion. Already tired at the end of a shift, looking a bit rumpled in his dirty raincoat, he is not happy when his boss rings him and tells him to stay with the case and shadow Hoffmann, in other words to pull a double shift. Harris has to have Leclerc do this, in order to have him cover the events of the next 24 hours, to slowly uncover the trail of murder and mayhem which Hoffmann is leaving behind him, and to be in at the climax at the exploding computer centre.

The theme of fear

  • Fear is the emotion referred to in the Darwin book
  • Each chapter opens with a quote, generally from one of Darwin’s books, some about the topic of fear and anxiety in animals, later on about the way the process of evolution itself is unstoppable
  • Hoffmann becomes a walking record of anxieties and paranoia:
    • he thinks the intruder is going to kidnap or harm Gabby, or kidnap her
    • he is told he might have dementia, triggering anxiety
    • he gives a long cerebral explanation of fear as the key factor of international trading markets
    • he and his partner become genuinely fearful at VIXAL-4’s irrational behaviour
    • he is fearful of whoever sent him the book
    • he is fearful of whoever bought all Gabby’s artworks
    • during the fight with the attacker, he resorts to basic animal-fear, fight or flight blind fury.
  • The VIX index is the fear index. Fear stalks the financial markets, in an all-too-predictable way.

The word fear is frequently repeated throughout the text, as if simple repetition will somehow instal it at the heart of the fiction. But although the final 50 pages or so are every bit as nailbiting and intense as Harris’s other thrillers, somehow all these different people all having different sorts of fear diffuses the effect.

The more Harris explicitly mentions fear of this, that or the other, the more we feel we’re being coerced or hassled into accepting a thesis and not responding imaginatively to a fully worked-out work of fiction.

A miscellany

Interesting though each one of them is individually, it feels like the book is grappling with too many issues:

  • the threat of artificial intelligence (or autonomous machine reasoning, AMR, as Hoffmann prefers to call it, p.49) running out of control
  • the computerisation of the world’s stock exchanges vastly increasing the risk of irrational crashes
  • the dark side of the internet putting in touch people who murder and who want to be murdered
  • hyper modern art ie the MRI scans on glass

as well as lengthy sections explaining Hoffmann’s work at CERN and the Large Hadron Collider and modern particle physics.

It is a tribute to Harris’s grasp and ability as a writer that he manages to pull so many disparate threads together into one coherent narrative. Nevertheless, the plot goes on hold too many times while we are subjected to another factual briefing about computerisation or artificial intelligence or the amount of data generated by CERN or the speed of stock market transactions or any of a score of other interesting but distracting topics.

The book still has some slick and fancy turns of phrase:

A tram rattled to a halt and opened its doors, spilling out passengers along its entire length, as if a knife had been passed from end to end, gutting it. (p.76)

But nowhere near as many or as atmospheric as in its predecessor, The Ghost. And too many of its sentence read like this:

Evolution remains a self-interested process, and even the interests of confined digital organisms may conflict with our own. (p.309)

They’re interesting in themselves, and necessary to explain the book’s multiple scientific issues. But they make it read at many points more like a Wikipedia article than a novel. Despite its gripping and thrilling climax, for me the majority of the book felt like it consisted of too many disparate elements, which the actual story struggled to pull together, and which were too resolutely factual and documentary to really come to life.

Plus, at a bucket level, the whole book relies on us caring what happens to an American banker. And who, in our day and age, is going to do that? Probably the majority of its readers actively want him to come to a sticky end.

Credit

The Fear Index by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson in 2011. All quotes and references are to the 2012 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.

The Ghost by Robert Harris (2007)

This is a cracking thriller, exciting, intelligent and insightful about a range of contemporary issues.

Harris and Blair

The unnamed narrator is a ghost writer ie he co-writes the memoirs of sportsmen, entertainers, celebrities, people in the public eye who have a life story to tell but can’t write.

Out of the blue he is invited to ‘ghost’ the memoirs of former British Prime Minister, Adam Lang (obviously based on Tony Blair, who stepped down from the premiership in June 2007; this novel was published in September of the same year).

Harris was an early supporter of Blair in the mid-1990s. As a personal friend he had access to Blair throughout his premiership and, as a political journalist (political editor of the Observer newspaper, aged just 30) he also possessed a solid understanding of the wider British political scene. This comes over in the book which shows both a humorous familiarity with both the publishing world and an insider’s knowledge of the machinations, the personalities, of high politics.

Harris takes us through the process of meeting agents, publishers, negotiating and signing a deal, with lots of snappy insights into the ruthless commercialism of the process and the boardroom politics involved.

The narrator has just split up with his on-again, off-again girlfriend Kate, who was once a devoted supporter of Lang and is now an equally firm denouncer of him as a traitor and war criminal, because of his decision to help the Americans invade Iraq.

So with nothing to tie him down, the narrator flies out to Boston, takes a cab on to the luxury house located on a remote stretch of the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. It’s actually the ultra-modern beach-side mansion of the owner of the publishing house which has paid $10 million in advances for Lang’s autobiography, Marty Rhinehart.

Here he meets the man himself, his secretarial staff – notably the blonde, over-made-up Personal Assistant Amelia Bly – and Lang’s redoubtable wife, Ruth.

Elements of unease

The pace is superbly managed. Harris masterfully deploys plotlines, details and atmosphere to combine and create a powerful sense of unease, slowly undermining the breezy narrative tone, like a dinghy springing multiple leaks.

McAra’s death Right at the start we learn that someone else had been working on the autobiography before our man – one of Lang’s entourage, a loyal party hack named Mike McAra. One bleak December night he appears to have fallen over the edge of the ferry you have to take to get to Martha’s Vineyard. Everyone concludes it was suicide. But a doubt has been planted in our minds…

Panic rush Meanwhile, McAra’s abrupt removal from the scene creates a crisis in the publishing timeline. The narrator is horrified to learn that the publishers expect him to deliver a finished manuscript within a month. Almost impossible, but his worries are assuaged by the fee: he’ll get $250,000! Well, that will help – but still it means the narrator feels crowded, hassled and under pressure.

Mugged and set up? When he leaves the publishers (at its horrible, modern, windswept offices out towards Heathrow) Rhinehart presses on him another manuscript he’d like the narrator to read. This is odd, given the tight deadline on the main book, and odd that it’s wrapped in a bright yellow bag.

Just after the narrator gets out of the cab back at his flat and is turning to open the door, he is brutally mugged, punched in the gut and knocked to the floor. When he comes round he a) feels terrible, bruised and grazed b) realises the bag has been stolen.

Recovering in the safety of his flat, the Narrator has a paranoid moment when he wonders whether Rhinehart gave him the yellow bag as a test, thinking someone might think the narrator was carrying the manuscript of Lang’s autobiography – and that this is worth mugging someone and stealing.

Terrorism The novel was written and published soon after the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London and the narrator conveys the jaded expectation that bombings might become a regular occurrence of modern London life. In fact, there is a (fictional) Tube bombing,  at Oxford Circus, on the same day he visits the publisher and receives the assignment.

Security When his cab arrives at the remote Martha’s Vineyard house, the narrator is unnerved at the level of security surrounding the former Prime Minister. Security guards patrol the perimeter of the property, check his ID as his cab approaches, the house windows are bullet proof and so on. The narrator is scared witless when there is a sudden emergency lockdown of the house, complete with metal panels descending over the windows and a deafening klaxon – although this turns out to be the regular weekly test.

Complicity in torture Even as he sets off, the Narrator sees on the TV news at home, then at the airport terminal and glimpses in the courtesy newspapers, a breaking news story that Lang is being named as having personally ordered the capture of four British Muslims in Pakistan by the SAS, who then handed them over to the CIA to be interrogated as possible terrorism suspects. This is to be the mainspring of the plot and to blow up into a fast-moving crisis.

The plot

Once past security, introduced to everyone and ensconced in the beachfront house, the narrator has a successful morning working session with Lang, teasing out personal stories from his early life.

However, the process has barely begun before it is blown off course by news that Lang’s former Foreign Secretary has personally intervened in the news story about the four Muslims, to name Lang as guilty of ordering their arrest.

Immediately, there is speculation on the TV news that Lang might be indicted at the Hague for war trials. Gathered round the TV in the isolated house, Lang, Ruth, Amy and the narrator watch, appalled, as the lead prosecutor at the Hague announces she will be leading a full investigation into the accusations.  While the group feverishly discuss what Lang’s response should be – fly back to Britain to face out the charge, fly to Washington to meet his pal the President – the narrator finds himself drafted in to write Lang’s official response, which is then released to the press.

All this blows a big hole in the Narrator’s plans for a week of cosy chats about his life and career, as Lang and his entourage abruptly depart for Washington, there to be photographed shaking hands with a grateful President etc, and leaving the Narrator suddenly alone in the big echoing luxury mansion by the slate-grey winter sea.

What McAra discovered

Here, to his discomfort, he has been given the room used by the dead aide, McAra, and it is as he is clearing out the dead man’s stuff that he comes across a pack of photos and documents from Lang’s university career, posted to him by the Lang Foundation archive.

And notices something odd. Among a series of old photos of Lang at Cambridge there’s one of him with various student actors in the famous Footlights review, and scribbled on the back a phone number. When the narrator tentatively rings it he is horrified to hear the voice of the ex-Foreign Secretary, Rycart, Lang’s mortal enemy, answering the phone. In a panic, he breaks the connection.

At the beach

With Lang now departed for the airport and nothing to do or read, the narrator finds himself brooding on McAra and his mysterious death. He borrows one of the house bicycles and cycles out to where McAra’s body was found on an isolated beach. Harris gives a brilliant description of a dark rainstorm coming in, then breaking. The narrator takes shelter in the porch of an old timer who comes out to tell him there’s no way that body could have drifted from the ferry route to this beach, not with the currents round here; and all about ‘the lights on the beach’ the night McAra’s body was found. And then about the old lady who was telling everybody what she saw until she had an accident, fell down the stairs, poor thing, and is now in a coma. The narrator is seriously spooked. Could it be McAra’s accident/suicide was staged. Was he in fact murdered? And why?

Barely has he started thinking this through than he is disconcerted to see Ruth Lang (and her bodyguard, who follows her everywhere) trudging up the beach towards him. She insists they pile the bike in the back of their hummer and drive him back to the mansion.

Sleeping with the Prime Minister’s wife

Here they have hot baths, dress and have dinner, during which the narrator finds himself confiding some of his new discoveries to Ruth. She is shocked, and then concerned. What has Adam got himself into? At the end of the evening she comes into his room, still in her night-dress and collapses in tears into his arms. And into his bed. And they have sex.

The narrator knows it’s a bad idea and in the morning it seems a lot worse. Ruth is brisk and hard and efficient, dismissing their overnight dalliance, making cutting remarks about him not being ‘a real writer’.

The narrator has had enough and decides to get off the island altogether for a break. The house servants this time persuade him not to cycle but to take the spare car, one of those all-mod-cons American jeeps. He is disconcerted to learn it is the car McAra was driving when he disappeared off the ferry, but it’s the only one available.

Where the satnav takes him

The narrator gets in and drives towards the ferry, all the time irritated by the satnav which he can’t figure out how to turn off. Doesn’t matter at first because it directs him to the ferry and then on to the nearest town, where our man will be quite happy to sit in a Starbucks and ponder his odd situation.

But the Satnav has other plans. It insistently tells him to turn around and take the next exit out of town. Because he is bored, irritated and curious, he gives in and does what it tells him. Only as he proceeds further into the new England wilderness does it dawn on him that he is following the route of McAra’s last journey.

Professor Emmett

The directions bring him to an isolated track into deep woodland, where there are a few scattered homesteads, and to the house of – he discovers when he looks at the mail in the mailbox – a certain Professor Paul Emmett. Even as he’s sitting there in the car wondering what to do next, Emmett’s car sweeps by and into his drive. So the narrator rings the intercom and gets invited up to the house.

Here Emmett proves himself at first a genial host, happy to answer questions about his magical year at Cambridge as a Rhodes scholar. He is less forthright about his memories of Lang, who he claims not to remember at all, until the narrator confronts him with the old photos he’s got showing Emmett and Lang together in the same drama production. He becomes cagey. Then when the narrator produces his news that McAra drove up here to meet him on the night of his death, Emmett point blank denies it. In fact he produces his wife who independently looks up their diary and shows that they were at an academic conference all the weekend in question. And his geniality has long worn out. He asks the narrator to leave.

Emmett – CIA – Lang?

In the nearby village of Belmont the narrator finds an internet café and spends some time googling Paul Emmett. He discovers Emmett is head of a typical right-wing US think tank and lobby group. He googles the CVs of the other directors and discovers they are all in the military or the arms trade. Then he stumbles across an accusation made years back by a CIA whistleblower that Emmett was himself a CIA agent, from as far back as the 1970s. The CIA? And Adam Lang, Britain’s Prime Minister?

Outside the internet café the narrator notices a black car parked a discreet distance from his jeep. He begins to look at the other occupants of the café with a suspicious mind. Is that just an ordinary couple sitting looking at the one laptop? What about the middle-aged guy over in the corner? Do they know what the narrator has found out? Is he being followed?

By now seriously spooked, the narrator uses the phone number he found on McAra’s Lang photo and rings Rycart again, but this time stays on the line. He explains who he is and how he found the number. Rycart tells the narrator to fly up to New York, he’ll arrange a secure cab to collect him, and bring him to an airport hotel where they can talk.

Conference with Rycart

And that’s what happens. Once frisked and checked out by the security guard-cum-cabbie, the narrator meets Rycart in an airport hotel and they tentatively share their knowledge. McAra had found out that Lang as a student was close to Emmett – hence them being together in the Cambridge photos – for Emmett had an American scholarship to Cambridge for a year.

Both of them think that Emmett must have been acting as a CIA recruiter even at that early stage, and that he recruited Lang as a CIA agent. For Rycart this explains why ‘everything went wrong’ during Lang’s premiership. Can he, he asks the narrator, think of a major decision the government took which did not favour US foreign policy? Agreeing to the invasion of Iraq and being its vociferous defender? Agreeing to ‘extraordinary rendition’ ie kidnapping suspects? Not contesting Guantanamo Bay? Unequal trade agreements? The list goes on…. All sponsored by a British Prime Minister who was in fact acting under orders from his American puppet masters!

Rycart confirms that this was McAra’s conclusion, too, and that – in a bombshell for the narrator – was McAara, one of Lang’s oldest and most loyal lieutenants, who handed Rycart the information about the four Muslims who were kidnapped by the SAS! Who betrayed his boss, having come to the conclusion that his boss had betrayed the entire country.

Their hotel room confabulation is suddenly interrupted when Lang himself phones the narrator’s mobile. ‘Where are you, man? In New York, why? Oh to meet your publishers, OK. Well, come up and meet us, we’re at the Waldorf Hotel.’

Rycart nods his agreement so the narrator says yes – now terrified that he is probably under surveillance and of what happened to McAra and to the little old lady. ‘They’ have shown they will stop at nothing to hush the story up.

Back with Lang

He gets a cab from the hotel airport to the Waldorf but finds the Lang entourage just on the point of leaving. They are hurrying to fly back to the Vineyard and the narrator gets caught up in the hurry and panic, and swept up into one of the cars.

Once aboard the small plane, and everyone is settled, the narrator gets one final opportunity to interview Lang – seven minutes it turns out to last, he tapes it – and asks him directly about McAra. Ruth had said they had a terrible row the night before McAra died: what was it about? Lang says he doesn’t want to talk about it. But when the narrator reveals that it was McAra who handed the evidence of Lang’s orders for the Muslims to be kidnapped over to Rycart, he is shaken to his core. ‘Mike, Mike, Mike, what have you done?’

But it was a short flight and the plane is coming in to land. The narrator and the PA, Amelia, watch Lang, now haggard and gaunt, walk onto the plane steps and down and begin to cross the runway to the departure lounge, where they can see Ruth waiting.

A British voice rings out – ‘Adam!’ – it is one of the baggage handlers and Lang, ever the pro, breaks his walk to turn and shake hands with him when BOOM! – a big explosion throws the narrator, Amelia and everyone else back through the door.

A British suicide bomber has blown up himself and Lang. As the narrator recovers in hospital he finds out the bomber’s son died in Iraq and then his wife in a terrorist bombing. Ex-Army himself, he’d made himself a suicide vest. Lang is blown to smithereens, and so end the narrator’s worries.

Recuperation and writing

He recovers in hospital – it was his hearing which took the most damage – and then in a blaze of inspiration he writes the book, having found the ‘voice’ which can speak for Lang the strange, empty actor he’s got to know as well as anybody ever has, filling the book with his own brief, passionate involvement with this strange man.

He meets the deadline and the book is published on time. Like most ghosts, he isn’t invited to the launch party but Amelia is and she takes him as her plus one.

Ruth is there and air kisses the narrator – mwah mwah – then he sees her looking over her shoulder making some subtle indication of her head, turns – and is amazed to see Emmett standing behind him! He has a horrible flash, a moment if insight. What if… it wasn’t Lang that Emmett recruited?

The secret revealed

Back at his flat the narrator remembers some throwaway words Rycart used in their furtive hotel meeting: McAra had said something about the truth being in the beginning of his original long manuscript. What if he meant – in the beginnings? Suddenly he looks at the first word of each chapter of the manuscript and they spell out a hidden message:

Langs wife Ruth studying in 76 was recruited as a CIA agent in America by Professor Paul Emmett of Harvard University

So the most effective British Prime Minister in a generation turns out to have been manipulated in all his major policy decisions by his more clever, canny wife, who all along had been an agent for the CIA!

That explains why, as Rycraft enumerates them, that government was a lapdog to the yanks and never took a single decision that didn’t favour America’s aggressive foreign policy. Lang wasn’t influenced by the CIA: he was shallow and impressionable enough to be influenced in all these major decisions by his wife!

Envoi

The final, genuinely spooky, pages are written by the narrator on the run. Convinced his life is at risk he is now moving from hotel to hotel changing name, spending only cash. He is confirmed in his paranoia when he reads in the paper that Rycart and his driver have died in a freak road accident. God, the net is closing in.

In the final paragraphs we learn that he has sent the manuscript of the text we’re reading to his girlfriend, Kate – the one who was no friend to Lang – with instructions to open it and send it to a publisher if she doesn’t hear from him every month or reads that he is dead.

So the fact we are reading this novel at all implicates us, the readers – the narrator must have been killed. But at least the truth is out! It is a cheesy but convincing end to a brilliantly convincing thriller.


Politics

I shared the general euphoria when Tony Blair and New Labour came to power in 1997. As I worked on an international news programme in the late 1980s/early 1990s, I knew a bit about the Middle East, but wasn’t especially appalled when the Coalition invaded Iraq, though I knew (apparently, unlike most MPs) that the WMD argument for the invasion was a load of guff. So I am not one of the vengeful who feel Tony Blair must be indicted for war crimes.

International affairs have never been an appropriate place for western morality, it is entirely a question of Realpolitik and the art of the achievable. So I think the main accusation against the Americans isn’t immorality, but sheer ineptitude. Every schoolchild should be made to read Fiasco by Thomas E. Ricks, a truly awe-inspiring account of the way the Americans screwed up every aspect of the invasion and especially the post-war ‘pacification’ of Iraq. We are still, 13 years later, dealing with the fallout, which may last more than a generation.

What is impressive about Harris’s novel is the way he dramatises so many points of view about the war and the resulting terror attacks – Lang gets to have his say justifying the invasion and the war on terror; Rycart, his ally-turned-enemy, has his say about betrayal at government level; Kate, the narrator’s girlfriend, embodies the reaction of many New Labour devotees turned vengeful in their disillusionment; and the ex-Army man who blows up himself and Lang represents all those who lost family as a direct or indirect result.

Amid the bombings, news alerts and general hysteria, the narrator is a deliberate everyman figure, someone we can all relate to, someone aware of the scary changes in the society around him but with a living to make, who just has to get on with it.

Having read a newspaper report accusing Lang of giving the authorisation for the four Muslims to be kidnapped and rendered to Guantanamo, the narrator thinks:

I read it through three times. It didn’t seem to add up to much. It was hard to tell any more. One’s moral bearings were no longer as fixed as they used to be. Methods my father’s generation would have considered beyond the pale, even when fighting the Nazis – torture, for example – were now apparently acceptable civilised behaviour. I decided that the ten per cent of the population who worry about these things would be appalled by the report, assuming they ever managed to locate it; the remaining ninety would probably just shrug. We had been told that the Free World was taking a walk on the dark side. What did people expect? (p.57)

That captures the feeling of most of us, doesn’t it? Aware that bad things are being done in our name but powerless to stop any of it.


Style and feel

Reviewing Harris’s previous thrillers, I noted that they all use ‘modern thriller prose’, fairly plain and functional in its clarity – but that he gave each novel a distinctive slant or angle. This one is comedy. The narrator is the wrong side of 30, in an unhappy relationship with TV producer ‘Kate’, lives in a poky top floor flat in Notting Hill, and wonders how his early ambitions came to this. Nonetheless he approaches every situation, almost to the end, with attractive hangdog humour, and quite quickly you are charmed by his humorous take on situations and people. Of the head of the publishing firm:

Maddox sat with his back to the window. He laid his massive, hairless hands on the glass-topped table, as if to prove he had no intention of reaching for a weapon just yet. (p.22)

It is a clever trick – in a book full of cleverness and alertness – to establish the narrator as an easy-going comic turn, before the suspense of the conspiracy starts to kick in. His humorous mind-set makes him easy to warm to and sympathise with and this makes it all the more plausible and compelling to accompany him on his slow-dawning journey of realisation.

This, Harris’s fourth thriller, seemed to me to have more a few more poetic touches, more descriptions and atmosphere than his previous novels. In particular there is lots of description of out of season New England seaside resorts in blustery January, of the lowering weather and half-abandoned streets.

After a while we came to a crossroads and turned into what I guessed must be Edgartown, a settlement of white clapboard houses with white picket fences, small gardens and verandas, lit by ornate Victorian streetlamps. Nine out of ten were dark but in a few windows which shone with yellow light I glimpsed oil paintings of sailing ships and whiskered ancestors. At the bottom of the hill, past the Old Whaling Church, a big, misty moon cast a silvery light over shingled roofs and silhouetted the masts in the harbour. Curls of wood smoke rose from a couple of chimneys. I felt as though I was driving on to a film set for Moby Dick. (p.53)

This one seemed to me to have more, and more imaginative, similes than its predecessors – a steady trickle of imaginative, stimulating, useful comparisons.

The receptionist at the hotel in Edgartown had warned me that the forecast was for a storm, and although it still hadn’t broken yet, the sky was beginning to sag with the weight of it, like a soft grey sack waiting to split apart. (p.195)

Amelia slipped into position in front of the computer screen. I don’t think I ever saw fingers move so rapidly across a keyboard. the clicks seemed to merge into one continuous purr of plastic, like the sound of a million dominoes falling. (p.125)

Not only is the plot gripping and enthralling, but sentence by sentence, Harris’s prose is a delight to read. Easy, limpid, intelligent, imaginative.

The book reeks of intelligence, a profound understanding of the processes of politics, a solid grasp of the social and political scene in the terror-wary 2000s. This is the second time I’ve read it and, like all Harris’s novels, I can imagine giving it a few years, and then rereading it again, for the pure intellectual pleasure of engaging with such a smart and savvy author.


Dramatis personae

  • The unnamed narrator – a seasoned, good humoured ghost writer
  • Kate –  his left-wing girlfriend, formerly a member of the Labour Party, who now hates Adam Lang
  • Marty Rhinehart – head of a multinational publishing corporation which spent a $10 million advance on Lang’s memoirs, who’s loaned his house out to Lang as a bolthole to work on the memoirs
  • John Maddox – scarily bullish chief executive of Rhinehart Inc.
  • Roy Quigley – 50-ish, senior editor at Rhinehart Publishing (UK Group Editor-in-Chief) who we see almost get sacked
  • Sidney Kroll – Lang’s sharp Washington attorney
  • Nick Riccardelli – the narrator’s hussling agent
  • Adam Lang – former British Prime Minister
  • Ruth Lang – his clever scheming wife
  • Mike McAra – former staffer for Lang, who spent two years doing preparatory research for his boss’s autobiography, then mysteriously disappeared off a ferry, presumed suicide
  • Amelia Bly – Lang’s elegant, blonde, over-made-up personal assistant, who, it becomes clear, Lang is having an affair with
  • Richard Rycart – former Foreign Secretary under Lang, now a rather vainglorious member of the UN, it is he who sends the International Criminal Court the documents implicating Lang in the kidnapping (‘rendition’) of four Muslim terror suspects
  • Professor Emmett – CIA agent who was sent to Cambridge in the 1970s to recruit rising stars, and recruited Ruth Lang

The movie

The movie was directed by no less a luminary than Roman Polanski. It is astonishingly faithful to the novel, featuring almost the identical scenes and much of the original dialogue, which shows how focused and lean Harris’s writing is. The most obvious change is that whereas Lang is assassinated by a (white English) suicide bomber in the novel, the same angry character assassinates him using a sniper rifle in the movie. I think the bomb is more fitting / ironic / poetical, and explains why the narrator is laid up in hospital for a while afterwards. People being shot are ten a penny in American movies, as in American life.

I watched it with my son (18), who hadn’t read the book, was thoroughly gripped by the narrative’s slow building of tension and fear, and then amazed at the final revelation that it was Ruth all along.

Credit

The Ghost by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson in 2007. All quotes and references are to the 2008 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.

Absolute Friends by John le Carré (2004)

‘Everyone in Berlin knows Sasha.’ (p.58)

For three quarters of its length this is the best, the most compelling, gripping and psychologically rewarding le Carré novel for years: for excitement and plausibility I would recommend this one over all its predecessors as far back as A Perfect Spy. It is a return to the full-blown world of Cold War spying, but now continued on into the more uncertain, violent and scary post-9/11 world and also, for the first time in his fiction, gives a real sense of age and frailty and remorse.

Then bizarrely, right at the end, the narrative turns into a rant against George Bush, Tony Blair and the US invasion of Iraq, our heroes get assassinated by the wicked, imperialist Americans and the whole thing is covered up in a finale that’s reminiscent of 1970s conspiracy thrillers, only without the wit or style.

Absolute Friends

Absolute Friends feels like yet another channeling of le Carré’s own life story. Like the author, the main protagonist Ted Mundy is brought up by a braggart father – this version is a British Army Major who stays on into post-Independence Pakistan, all bristling patriotism and military lingo, his mother having died in childbirth. When his father is cashiered from the Army in the 1950s, young Ted returns with him to grey, rainy England and, like the young JLC, is packed off to a succession of boarding schools which he hates, before – exactly like JLC – discovering a liking for German language and literature and so going abroad to study, in this fictional instance, to Berlin (le Carré went to study in Basel in Switzerland).

As with A Perfect Spy, the closer le Carré is to his own life, the more grounded the text and the language feel. Granted the entire childhood in Pakistan, the food and Muslim prayers and Urdu words for things, are not directly autobiographical but the product of research – nonetheless, the character’s feelings of being puzzled, isolated, seeking escape from a childhood world which is both smothering and the only support he knows, are powerfully conveyed and give the novel more psychological conviction than its four or five predecessors.

The plot

At Oxford Ted had taken a lover (le Carré heroes are never short of women, they luxuriate in an atmosphere of sustained sensuality – the ease with which Jonathan Roper or Oliver Single or Andrew Osnard or Ted Mundy attract and bed posh totty is one of the defining characteristics of these books).

Strident young Ilse introduces him to sex and radical politics, packing him off to Berlin with a letter of introduction to the city’s top student radical, Sasha (we never learn his last name).

‘Everyone in Berlin knows Sasha.’ (p.58)

Here we come to one of le Carré’s most irritating mannerisms – the way so many of his protagonists are in awe of super-famous, notorious, legendary figures. Thus everyone in Berlin knows Sasah, just as everyone in Panama knew Harry Pendel, everyone in the City knew ‘Tiger’ Single, and so on and so on.

Sasha is a small, intense, broken-looking chap but, again, like all le Carré leading men, the smirking ‘conqueror’ of numberless women – as well as being the much-admired brains behind radical student politics in the seething Berlin of 1969.

It’s rather a relief that, for the first time in five or six novels, the books features scenes which don’t involve chaps from Eton and Winchester pointing out to each other how legendary and/or what total rotters each other are, in that insufferably self-congratulatory public school way.

Indeed, the scenes set among the free love and ‘smash the system’ radical students of late 1960s Berlin felt powerful and persuasive – helped no end by being set among foreigners who don’t end each sentence ‘old boy’, and therefore sound like normal people, not the self-regarding ‘legends’ of Eton or Harrow or Shrewsbury who populate his other post-1990s novels.

Ted enjoys free sex with, inevitably, the most beautiful and aloof of the many beautiful young women in the squat. All women in le Carré novels are young and beautiful and carefree, personally I find this thread rather creepy.

They go sticking up posters calling for the workers to overthrow the system etc, and then there’s a big demonstration in which 6-foot-tall Ted a) rescues Sasha from a beating by the police b) is himself arrested, soundly beaten, handed over to the British Consulate and deported.

Time passes during which Ted does not resume his degree at Oxford but tries various life experiments and the narrative gives a good sense of the confidence and open horizons so many people experienced in the early 1970s.

Ted teaches at schools (inevitably he has affair with one of the other master’s wives), lives for a while in the stoned writer’s colony in Taos, USA (obviously has an affair with a painter’s wife), tries his hand as a radio reporter and newspaper journalist, before drifting back to London and getting a homely little job at the British Council.

He also lowers his sexual sights from artists and free spirits and falls in love with a practical young woman, Kate, teacher in a local state school (that is, not a fee-paying boarding school – crikey, there are a few around, apparently) who also happens to be an activist in the local Labour Party.

In his new British Council role Ted is tasked with accompanying a youth theatre group across north Europe and then around the Eastern bloc countries. This meandering account all leads up to the seismic moment when Ted is hailed by Sasha backstage in an Eastern European capital. Yes, Sasha, Sasha from the old days in the Berlin commune!

Quickly Sasha makes a rendezvous with Ted at which he tells the incredulous Englishman what’s happened to him in the decade since the glory years in Berlin. Briefly, he was lured by radical colleagues to cross the Wall into the East where he was at first interrogated and grilled in the notorious ‘White Hotel’ interrogation centre, and then, finally, rehabilitated, on condition that he became a lowly employee of the State Security Police, the Stasi.

Now, by the time of this backstage meeting with Ted, Sasha has become completely disillusioned with life in the East, whose authorities he dismisses as ‘red fascists’. He has begun copying incriminating documents and building up an archive of the State’s criminality against the long-awaited day, far in the future, when the communist regime will collapse. And then he was amazed to see his old friend Ted’s name on the manifest of a travelling theatre group. And hence this meeting…

Sasha tells Ted he wants to spy for the West. He has access to files and documents and information all of which he will give to the West, for nothing, just out of anger and hatred of the regime. Ted doesn’t know what to think, and has the latest of many out-of-body experiences he has throughout the novel whenever he finds himself out of his depth. However, Sasha stipulates that he will only hand these goodies over to Ted, in person, no-one else. To manage this, Sasha explains, to cement their bond, Ted must offer himself as a spy to his Stasi masters. This will provide the perfect excuse for their meetings.

Ted becomes a spy

Sasha even explains to Ted who to get in touch with when he gets back to the West, a drawling, upper-class Intelligence officer in West Berlin, Nicholas Amory, who becomes his case officer. Ted now undergoes training in a) how to collect Sasha’s information b) how to present himself as a candidate for recruitment by the Stasi, not being too earnest, playing hard to get, then ultimately giving in and agreeing to become a double agent.

This central part of the novel is familiar territory for le Carré, but fascinating nonetheless. His classic spy novels from the 1960s and 70s emphasised the human cost of the trade and this is no different. Ted has married Kate and they have a young son, Jake, but all of them find it wearing to cope with Ted’s more and more frequent trips to Eastern Europe, ostensibly attending conferences promoting British Culture, but in every instance a) pretending to the Stasi that he has vital espionage material to feed Sasha b) in fact collecting and transporting back Sasha’s top secret information to his British handlers.

The narrative makes a deal out of the multiple versions of himself Ted has to navigate: Mundy One, his ‘true self’, Mundy Two the British spy, Mundy Three the pretend Stasi spy. Throw in playing the roles of good father and dutiful husband, and you have a very confused public schoolboy, who wishes he could just go and play cricket. I found the narrative’s portrayal of this slightly hallucinatory sense of managing multiple selves very convincing.

Amidst all the spying Ted is introduced by Amory to a tall, shaggy, comfortable American, who interviews him in depth over a number of days, and who he grows to like, one Orville J. Rourke (‘call me Jay’), whose dear old mother, like Ted’s, is of Irish descent.

Then, one day, Jay disappears, without a goodbye or anything. Amory explains to Ted that he has just been vetted by ‘the cousins’ (i.e. the CIA) and passed clean. Good for him.

Over the years Ted and Kate drift apart. She finds herself promoted within the Labour Party and put forward as the PLP candidate for her home town of Doncaster, which requires her to move up there, along with Jake. Because of his work Ted remains in London, and is often abroad anyway. The inevitable happens and, some years later, they have a summit meeting where Kate announces she’s leaving him, for a shadowy man in the background, Philip, something to do with the shiny New Labour Project.

(Le Carré, who gives every sign of loathing Tony Blair, is heavily sarcastic about Kate and her steady rise in the New Labour hierarchy).

What rings most true from these sequences is Ted’s heartfelt sorrow at missing out on his son’s childhood, sadly meeting up with the teenage Jake and realising he is a stranger to him.

Then one day they all find themselves watching on TV the Berlin Wall being hammered to the ground, while the East German police look on in bemusement. Ted has a moment of concern for his friend Sasha, liable to be lynched by the mob in the anti-Stasi reprisals; and then panic for himself, as he realises his own Stasi file, proclaiming him a communist spy, might be published. But it doesn’t happen…

The present

All le Carré’s post-Cold War novels start in media res, i.e. in the middle of the complete sequence of events they describe. After establishing the situation in ‘the present’, they then go back to explain the often long and convoluted backstories which led up to this moment. Thus Absolute Friends opens soon after the Allied invasion of Iraq (March to May 2003) to find Ted adrift in Europe again and explains everything I’ve just summarised in a flashback.

Having lost his family in England around the same time the Cold War ended and his career as a spy came to an abrupt end, Ted has returned to Germany and set up a school for teaching English to corporate executives.

So as ‘the present’ of the novel opens, this school has shut down, bankrupted by the (possibly) criminal activities of Ted’s business partner Egon, and Ted has drifted down to Munich, where he has fluked a job as an English-speaking tour guide to one of the castles of mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, giving chummy, unfunny lectures to bemused tourists.

He has also fallen in love with a poor Muslim immigrant, Zara, who approached him one night in a bar offering to prostitute herself. The decent public schoolboy and soldier’s son in him turns this down and insists on buying her a nutritious dinner. She explains that she is the victim of an arranged marriage made back in Pakistan to a man who turned out to be a crook and wife beater, and who smashed out her front teeth among other assaults, before being arrested and sent to prison. Now she prostitutes herself to support her proud little son, Mustafa.

Ever one for a lost cause (and leaking a fair bit of sentimentality), Ted becomes Zara’s protector, paying for proper food, buying the suspicious Mustafa toys, behaving honourably for he is, like so many le Carré characters, at heart a jolly decent chap, an honourable schoolboy.

And now we realise the reason why le Carré had his protagonist born and raised in Pakistan. It makes him sympathetic to Muslim culture, it makes him ready to be taken along by Zara and Mustafa to their impoverished mosque in the backstreets of Munich, it contributes to his anger at the short-sighted stupidity of the Allies for invading Iraq on a trumped-up pretext.

But despite the naked contrivance of all this, the actual descriptions of Ted’s childhood in dusty Pakistan, of playing with the native children and the sweet memories which elude him in later life, are genuinely moving.

Above all, it is a relief not to be among the braying diplomats and their bitchy wives who have dominated JLC’s past few novels. It feels a little bit like actual modern life, in its poverty and anxiety and multi-cultural confusion. And it feels like an achievement for le Carré to have reached beyond the bubble of his age and class and grasped that.

The counter-university

And so all this brings us to the final act. Out of the blue Ted gets a letter from his old comrade in arms, Sasha, who makes his third great interference in Ted’s life. This time, when they meet, Sasha introduces him to a mad new scheme: there is a secretive billionaire who is so incensed at the West’s invasion of Iraq, and by the stranglehold the new, more virulent military-industrial complex is exerting over all aspects of Western media, culture and education, that he has a magic plan at hand – he wants to set up a Counter-University, which will provide a safe space for voices speaking out against the Complex, where alternative discourses and theories can flourish.

Sasha drives Ted out to an aircraft-hanger sized barn in the countryside outside Munich, where they transfer to a 4-by-4 driven by a stern female operative, and then up hill and through a maze of forests and valleys to a remote mansion.

It is like a James Bond lair, immaculate and clean in every detail, and Sasha leaves Ted to be processed by several sets of slick young receptionists and security guards before being admitted to the vast room of Mr Big, who turns out to be a tracksuited, twinkly old man of 70, who gives his name as Dimitri and delivers a long monologue about the evils of the US military-industrial complex. He outlines his plans to set up the Counter-University and even produces a reading list of the kinds of books they should be teaching, a list which could come straight from the pages of the Guardian:

  • Naomi Klein
  • Arundhati Roy
  • George Monbiot
  • Mark Curtis
  • John Pilger
  • Noam Chomsky
  • Joseph Stiglitz
  • Susan George

I’ve read articles or books by all of these authors and even attended lectures by some of them (Klein, Stiglitz). I am broadly sympathetic to their views, but I found le Carré’s decision to promote their views via the mouth of a wizened, old James Bond-style villain, bizarre.

‘I am speaking of something even more important to the development of western society than the ballot box. I am speaking of the deliberate corruption of young minds at their most formative stage. Of the lies that are forced on them from the cradle onwards by corporate or State manipulation, if there’s a difference any more between the two which I begin to doubt. I am speaking of the encroachment of corporate power on every university campus in the first, second and third worlds. I am speaking of educational colonisation by means of corporate investment at faculty level, conditional upon the observation of untrue nostrums that are advantageous to the corporate investor, and deleterious for the poor fuck of a student.’ (p.276)

In the fiction, Ted is driven back to his flat where he agrees the whole deal with Sasha. However, Ted is not that naive and the next night hops into a car and drives back out to the aircraft hanger, only to find it full of farm equipment, and then continues up to the James Bond mansion in the forest, only to find it stripped and bare. Spooky!

Stumbling back through the woods he is aggressively captured by a large force of armed and trigger-happy Austrian security police, stripped, hooded, bundled into a jeep and interrogated before it all comes to a halt with the reappearance of Jay, the CIA man from years before.

Jay reveals to Ted that they have their eyes on Dimitri and have traced his money back to Riyadh. The Saudis. Muslims, Ted. Has it crossed Ted’s mind that Dimitri might not be a peace-loving philanthropist but part of the new web of anti-Western terrorists spreading around the world?

Ted is cleaned up and dropped home where he is paid another visit by his old MI6 minder Nick Amory. For the first time since Ted’s known him, Nick is himself at a loss and puzzled. He reveals MI6’s uncertainty about Dimitri’s background and motives: is it to found a grand new liberal university in the venerable university city of Heidelberg? Or is that the facade for some evil ‘spectacular’ like blowing the city up?

And Nick tells Ted that Jay is no longer with ‘the Company’ i.e. the CIA: he’s been a freelancer, advising big US corporations for four years or more. So whose interests does he have at heart? Ted is right to feel confused, and the reader along with him. Thirty pages from the end Ted loads Zara and Mustafa onto a plane back to Turkey, to attend her sister’s wedding, glad to have them out of the way of whatever happens next.

The big shoot-out

What happens next is Ted drives to the big, empty school building where he’s made an appointment to meet Sasha. Sasha is late. After a few drinks, Ted takes a jemmy and opens the crates of books which have started arriving as preparation for the big new university and are piled up in the big main hall.

Sure enough, he finds lots of books on philosophy etc, but then… some on how to make home-made bombs, tips on arson, and then some crates full of hand grenades and guns. Oh. OK. In a very cinematic moment he sits back in the armchair in the big unlit atrium of the schoolhouse staring at the pile of cracked-open crates in utter silence, wondering what the hell he’s got himself into.

Then he hears the moan of a motor car, a screech of brakes and all hell breaks loose – the doors and windows are smashed in by black-clad US Special Forces firing machine guns in all directions and letting off small explosions. Ted runs to the stairs and stumbles up them despite being hit in the leg and shoulder. He makes it up to the attic where he swings open the skylight, looking down into the road in time to see Sasha being shot to pieces outside. At which point half a dozen SWAT troops burst into the attic followed by a balaclava-ed, tall, shaggy guy with a smooth Boston accent – God, it’s Jay! – who takes careful aim with a sniper’s rifle and shoots Ted through the head.

The cover-up

Exactly as in The Constant Gardener a) the hero is killed by the forces of evil b) le Carré embarks on an elaborate explanation of how a completely fictional cover story is manufactured by the State and media c) one good man speaks out in a bid to tell the truth but is stifled.

So official sources give out that US forces only just managed to prevent a major terrorist atrocity right in the heart of Germany. Huge stockpiles of ammunition and guides to terrorism were seized and two of the hardened terrorists shot dead but not before an intense firefight. Ted’s life is completely rewritten to make him look like an embittered loser who has turned to Islamic radicalism (even marrying one of them, godammit!) while Sasha is characterised as a former Stasi spy and failed radical. So much for the cover-up.

We go on to learn that Dimitri was a conman and actor hired to deceive both Sasha and Ted, who has taken a big payoff and retired to the States. We learn that Zara was arrested on arrival in Ankara and is being tortured until she corroborates the official story. We learn that a high-ranking British official published a ‘true’ account of Mundy’s life on an anonymous website (this would be Nick Amory), an account which was comprehensively rubbished by the powers-that-be and gullible journalists who, in le Carré’s view, are always easily impressed by the glamorous world of ‘intelligence’.

And the motive behind this elaborate and murderous scam? Germany had refused to join the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ which invaded Iraq. This entire incident and the deaths of Sasha and Ted were engineered to terrify German public opinion, helped along by paid articles from America-friendly journalists, designed to bring pressure to bear on the German Chancellor to fall into line with US foreign policy, with the American military-industrial hyperpower which, in le Carré’s view, has gone mad, and is undermining the whole world.


A spot of biography

Le Carré’s father, on the evidence of his own interviews and the recent biography of him, was a world class con-man, who gathered round him gangs of collaborators and conspirators who all agreed with the Chief and supported his mad schemes. Within this small world, tightly knit together by its secrets and conspiracies, to the growing boy John all the adult characters around him seemed larger than life figures, with superhuman qualities.

This sense of a small, claustrophobic world in which everyone is a legend to everyone else is one of the hallmarks of le Carré’s fiction. A Perfect Spy is a great novel because it has the force of a barely fictionalised recap of le Carré’s odd childhood. The same sense of a magic circle of large-than-life characters is strongly felt in Single & Single where the legendary ‘Tiger’ Single lords it over his gang, and also in The Night Manager where ‘the worst man in the world’, Richard Roper, lords it over another close-knit bunch of cronies.

The narrator of le Carré’s fictions is always an interloper into these secret worlds, an outsider, attracted and repulsed by their phony charisma, who ends up overturning them. Thus Tiger’s son, Oliver, betrays his father, and Roper’s protégé Jonathan Pine, betrays his slick arms dealer chief.

As part of his odd childhood, young le Carré was packed off to a series of boarding schools where he encountered another self-enclosed, self-regarding world full of ‘legendary’ masters and ‘fabled’ young stars of the cricket pitch or concert hall or whatever.

From which he progressed to Oxford University, also notorious for promoting its members, either undergraduate or faculty, to mythical status.

And then, after a spell of teaching at Eton (another institution not shy of turning its masters and pupils into legends) on to the Intelligence Service, another inward-looking organisation, also not slow to lionise its leading lights, such as good old Kim Philby, solid chap.

This background of a whole series of cliqueish little worlds full of people telling each other how terrific they are, I think, explains the often smothering cliqueyness of much of le Carré’s fiction, which consistently concerns itself with small groups of figures who all regard each other as legends and stars.

The Constant Gardener is ostensibly about criminality in the worldwide pharmaceutical industry and takes the hero (the Old Etonian Justin Quayle) from Africa to Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Canada and back in his quest for the truth. But in his mind he never leaves – and the narrative never really shakes free from – the small number of People Like Us in the Nairobi High Commission where we first meet him, their secrets and lies, all conveyed in dialogue dripping with the privileged slang and superior attitude of their gilded circle.

Use of the word ‘our’ in the fiction of John le Carré

Thus, in these later novels, all too many of the characters are ‘legendary’ and ‘fabled’, larger-than-life super-characters who simply everyone knows, darling. This verbal habit is like a chummy arm round the shoulder of the reader pushing you to buy into these cliquey circles, an over-familiar embrace which le Carré’s many fans eagerly welcome or don’t notice, but which this reader, for one, coldly resists.

It also explains why le Carré has a funny relationship with the word ‘our’. ‘Our’ is a ‘possessive determiner’ (according to linguistics) which, when used factually, simply conveys that something belongs to two or more people, one of whom is me. Our car, our house, our country.

But in le Carré’s hands it is used in a number of ways to compel the reader into the myth-making world of his ‘legendary’ characters, to pressure the reader into seeing things his, and their, way, to acquiescing in their overblown heroic status and the generally bombastic mind-set which surrounds them.

Thus JLC characters are regularly over-sold as ‘our’ hero this, ‘our very own’, ‘our dear old’ so and so. I noticed it prominently throughout this text:

… our own dear Neville Chamberlain… our beloved British monarchy… Ted Mundy, our Hyde Park Corner orator… our poor King Ludwig… our recently appointed misanthrope…

It is part of the general tone of smothering, over-familiar, hugger-muggerness, the sense that you are being jostled and coerced into a gang of upper-class twits who you would normally cross the road to avoid, which can make reading his novels feel more like an endurance test than a pleasure.

He uses the word ‘our’ to do a number of things:

1. To be vastly patronising – ‘… the photograph of our dear old queen…’ (p.148) conveys a sense that ordinary people like the Queen but you and I, dear boy, ha ha, we are so much more sophisticated and worldly wise, eh.

2. Appropriating historical or eminent figures to our cause or discourse, while simultaneously looking down on them – ‘our poor King Ludwig..’ (p.18)

3. To pour scorn and derision on political leaders – ‘Bush and Blair, our two great war leaders…’

4. To show how superior one is to history by mocking it – ‘When our Dear Führer came to power..’ (p.75) ‘… our dear Führer’s old Olympic stadium..’ (p.147) ‘our gallant British forces liberating the imperilled Suez Canal..’ (p.255)

5. To conceal anger beneath mockery – ‘As a young woman she [Sasha’s mother] was of course repeatedly raped by our victorious Russian liberators’ (p.78) Referring to the Stasi interrogation centre in East Germany as ‘… our White Hotel in East Prussia..’ (p.189)

6. To puff up his characters in that mock heroic, facetiously superior upper class drawl – ‘our very own hero of the hour’; one of the teenage actors is described as ‘Lexham, our Jamaican Macbeth…’ (p.136)

7. Loftily mocking the act of communication – ‘… for the benefit of our British and American readers…’ (p.86)

8. Normal, standard use of ‘our’, striking for its rarity – ‘Our targets for tonight are…’ (p.84) ‘our fellow activists..’ (p.90)

9. ‘Our’ as a dialect usage of working class people – Kate’s working class, northern father always refers to her as ‘our Kate’ (p.204)

10. Most of all for a self-mocking exaggeration of his own characters, as if the whole novel is a witty in-joke among public school People Like Us:

  • Ulrike our moral angel, our leading leftist, high priestess of the Alternative Life… (p.83)
  • Sasha our charismatic orator, our coming man for the leader’s throne, our Quasimodo of the social genesis of knowledge… (p.90)
  • Sasha our charismatic Socrates.. (p.119)
  • Sasha the great double agent (p.264)

This kind of pompous, overblown, superior, knowing mockery stands in for analysis throughout the book. What underlies all its forms is the breezily arrogant superiority of the true public school article, the upper-class disdain for the ordinary view, for normal phrasing, for anything which isn’t detached and ironised.

Cartoon characterisation

Something similar is going on with the tendency not just to name a character, but repeatedly to blow him up to mock-heroic proportions. We see and hear a lot of Ted’s thoughts and actions, but the narrator also overblows and mocks him in a series of comic, third-person cartoons as if he was a cardboard cutout of a human being:

  • First thing in the morning the chaste English boarding-school boy and as yet unbruised recruit to the cause of world liberation springs forth from his field bed… (p.71)
  • The good soldier is not fazed… The aspiring novelist likes to spread his notebook… (p.72)
  • ‘Ted Mundy, life’s eternal apprentice…’ (p.100)
  • ‘The former head prefect and cricketing hero signs up with a rural preparatory school…’ (p.106)

Why describe a character’s emotions when you can big him up with bombastic, if self-mocking, grandiosity? This mockery owes more to P.G. Wodehouse than the thriller tradition.

Endless comparisons to boarding school

So many English public school-educated writers seem never to escape their childhood, with the result that almost everything around them reminds them of their dear old alma mater:

  • Teddy tends to announce himself ‘in his best head prefect voice.’ (p.63)
  • Life in Berlin begins ‘for the chaste English boarding-school boy.’ (p.71)
  • Those students who don’t leave the squat in summer are ‘like uncollected children in a boarding school.’ (p.73)
  • When Ted meets his MI6 controller, his first thought is ‘whether Amory is one of the prefects who beat him in the washroom.’ (p.97)
  • As he starts his career as a spy, Ted is so scared ‘it’s like opening the bowling for the public schools at Lords every time…’ (p.225)
  • ‘To Mundy they look more like cricket umpires than removal men.’ (p.331)
  • When he puts her on the plane to Turkey, Zara clings so tight to Mundy, that ‘he imagines she is his daughter and he is sending her off to boarding school against her will.’ (p.345)

Is that really the most powerful comparison the text can think up for a terrified woman clinging to her only security in the world? This continual drawing of the wider world back into the bubble of upper-class English public school experiences, slang and attitudes, has a reductive effect on the imagination. Although the narrative travels widely across Europe and tells you it is taking in the world-spanning implications of the American military-industrial complex, it is fighting a losing battle against the narrowing impact of the le Carré’s relentlessly public school and cricket mindset.


The big issue

Belatedly, I realised that most of JLC’s post-Cold War novels gravitate around a Big Geopolitical ‘Issue’. (It reminds me a little of Charles Dickens’s early plan to write a novel about each of the vices, starting with Hypocrisy in Martin Chuzzlewit and then Pride in Dombey and Son, before he quietly dropped his plan.) Thus each of the novels deals with a Big Topic:

  • The Night Manager – the international arms trade
  • Our Game – not clear
  • The Tailor of Panama – US intervention in Latin America
  • Single & Single – City institutions laundering money for the wicked (Georgian drug suppliers)
  • The Constant Gardener – multinational pharmaceuticals resorting to conspiracy and murder to protect their profits
  • Absolute Friends – untamed aggression of global hyperpower (America) run riot

The big issue which this long fiction leads up to is the alleged stranglehold on Western culture, education and media exercised by a new, all-pervading and toxic American military-industrial complex.

‘If you tell a big lie long enough everyone will believe it,’ le Carré has Sasha yell at Ted – ‘and then anybody who speaks out against it can be labelled mad.’

Dimitri has a long speech about the evil of Bush and Blair, the wickedness of their war, the stifling of free speech. Ted nods his acquiescence.

Does it matter that a thriller contains or ends on some kind of political message? Not necessarily, no.

Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson novels contain references throughout to the wickedness of the East German state, without denting the novels’ plausibility because the thought is integrated into the narrative.

Similarly, Robert Harris’ terrifying bestseller Fatherland contains harrowing indictments of the Nazi régime, but the indictment is wholly integrated into the plot, and the seamlessness of that integration is a large part of the reason it is so satisfying as a novel.

Martin Cruz Smith’s novels manage to be very exciting but at the same time to shed fascinating light on the repressive nature of the countries and systems he is depicting (Russia, Cuba).

Even a comedy like Tom Sharpe’s Wilt On High can end on a page-long diatribe against the madness of nuclear weapons and not be damaged by it because it arises naturally out of the plot (and is all the more effective because Sharpe and his character Wilt are, on the whole, right wing and ridicule lefty politics so their anger is all the more impactful).

But it fails in this novel because it is simply so unsubtle. If JLC was already angry at the lies and hypocrisies of ‘our masters’ in the 1990s, he goes bananas after the invasion of Iraq. Just before this novel was published he wrote an opinion piece in the Times newspaper, The United States of America Has Gone Mad (link below) which I found embarrassing in its strident simple-mindedness.

If I was Arundhati, George, Naomi and all the rest, I would be flattered to be namechecked in a John le Carré novel, but also embarrassed at the guileless shoutiness of the context.

At key moments, and their central points, all these books lack analytical intelligence. Emotional depth? Often. Colourful ability with language? Yes (if much given to bombast and exaggeration). Cunning plotlines? Certainly. The artful creation of multi-levelled timeframes? Emphatically yes.

But when a character has to explain the exact geopolitical crux, the issue firing the whole narrative, the great wrong which must be understood – time and again JLC gives the speech to a drunk, bombastic, over-the-top or imbecile character: to the moronic Larry Pettifer in Our Game, to the oafish Jonah in Tailor of Panama, to the ridiculously implausible ‘Dimitri’ in Absolute Friends.

It is revealing that the first two characters are bigged up to ‘legendary’ status – ‘the one and only, the irrepressible, the immortal Jonah’ – because in these crux scenes le Carré doesn’t analyse (let alone dramatise): he creates a loud, shouty character and effectively says, ‘Look everybody – this guy is really famous and really clever and he thinks it’s a bad thing, so you should, too.’

It’s also dismayingly characteristic that these Voices of Truth swear a lot as if swearing guarantees the truth o what’s being sworn about:

‘I am talking world domination by the Yellow Man, and the end of fucking civilisation as we know it, even in the fucking Emerald Isle…’ (Jonah, Tailor of Panama, p.290)

‘West’s compassioned out, Timbo,’ he announces to the ceiling, not bothering to stifle a huge yawn. ‘Running on empty. Fuck us.’ (Larry, Our Game, p.138)

Instead of subtle and understated analysis, le Carré has the key explanations of the big theme of each of his post-Cold War novels delivered by over-hyped, swearing drunks.

What’s ultimately so dismaying and demoralising isn’t what le Carré is saying, it’s its complete unoriginality: when you read the long speeches the characters are given telling you that the invasion of Iraq wasn’t justified, that there were no weapons of mass destruction, that the Bush presidency was electorally invalid, that Tony Blair shamelessly sucked up to George Dubya for nothing, that the hysteria around the War on Terror was cranked up by the corporate-owned media in order to boost the profits of the arms industry, and so on – who among le Carré’s liberal readership is going to disagree with any of this?

Like all his readers I know al this already because I read about it in the papers all the time. I just don’t care very much because:

a) There is nothing I can do about it.
b) It is the way of the world. Which war in the past 150 years wasn’t good for the arms industry? Which British Prime Minister of the last sixty years hasn’t sucked up to an over-mighty America?
c) That was then. Things have moved on a lot since 2004.

Either le Carré’s arguments should be made much more forensically, analytically, dispassionately, and zero in on precise wrong-doings; or they should be woven much more cannily into the narrative (à la Robert Harris’s much more canny novels). But they do neither and feel too simple minded to be effective, too bolted onto the main plot to have as much dramatic impact as they should.

The combined effect, in this novel especially, is to make le Carré’s views look childish and shallow.


My little pony

I have a bet with my son that every post-Cold War le Carré novel will contain a reference to a private school character having a little pony. In his previous three novels key characters have shared memories of their first ponies or of competing in the local gymkhana (Oliver in Single & Single, posh totty Francesca in The Tailor of Panama, Quayle finds a photo of Tessa’s first pony in The Constant Gardener).

Disappointingly, the main character in Absolute Friends does not have a my-little-pony memory but… the receptionist at the Bedford Square house where Ted goes to see his back-up team during his spying days, is ‘a jolly girl called Laura with freckles and a pony club smile’ (p.210).

So I’m still just about winning my bet. I just need there to be a pony reference in his last four novels and I win a pound.


Credit

Absolute Friends by John le Carré was published in 2004 by Hodder and Stoughton. All page references are to the 2004 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of John Le Carré’s novels

1961 Call for the Dead – Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
1962 A Murder of Quality – Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
1963 The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
1965 The Looking Glass War – A peculiar, downbeat and depressing spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent over the border into East Germany to his pointless death. Smiley makes peripheral appearances trying to prevent the operation and then clear up the mess.
1968 A Small Town in Germany – Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Overblown.
1971 The Naïve and Sentimental Lover – His one attempt at a ‘serious’ novel and, allegedly. his worst book.
1974 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
1977 The Honourable Schoolboy – Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
1979 Smiley’s People – The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
1983 The Little Drummer Girl – A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
1986 A Perfect Spy – Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
1989 The Russia House – Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
1990 The Secret Pilgrim – A series of vivid short stories describing episodes in the life of ‘old Ned’, a senior British Intelligence officer now in charge of trainees at the Service’s base at Sarratt in Buckinghamshire. When he asks George Smiley to come and lecture the young chaps and chapesses, it prompts a flood of reminiscence about the Cold War and some references to how abruptly and completely their world has changed with the collapse of Russian communism.
1993 The Night Manager – Jonathan Pine is recruited by British Intelligence to infiltrate the circle of British arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper – described with characteristic hyperbole as ‘the worst man in the world’ – after first laboriously acquiring a persuasive back story as a crook. Once inside the circle, Pine disobeys orders by (inevitably) falling in love with Roper’s stunning girlfriend, but the whole mission is endangered by dark forces within British Intelligence itself, which turn out to be in cahoots with Roper.
1995 Our Game – Incredibly posh, retired Intelligence agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – the legendary Larry Pettifer who he knew at Winchester public school, then Oxford and personally recruited into the Service – has latterly been conspiring with a former Soviet agent to embezzle the Russian authorities out of tens of millions of pounds, diverting it to buy arms for independence fighters in the tiny republic of Ingushetia – and that Larry has also seduced his girlfriend, Emma – in a claustrophobic and over-written psychodrama about these three expensively-educated but eminently dislikeable upper-class twits.
1996 The Tailor of Panama – Old Etonian conman Andrew Osnard flukes a job in British Intelligence and is posted to Panama where he latches onto the half-Jewish owner of a ‘traditional’ English gentlemen’s tailor’s, the legendary Harry Pendel, and between them they concoct a fictional network of spies based in a fictional revolutionary movement, so they can embezzle the money London sends them to support it. Described as a comedy, the book has a few moments of humour, but is mostly grimly cynical about the corrupt workings of British government, British intelligence, British diplomats and of the super-cynical British media mogul who, it turns out, is behind an elaborate conspiracy to provoke a gruesomely violent American invasion of Panama, leaving you feeling sick and jaundiced with a sick and jaundiced world.
1999 Single & Single – Public schoolboy Oliver Single joins the law-cum-investment firm of his father, the legendary ‘Tiger’ Single, to discover it is little more than a money-laundering front for international crooks, specifically ‘the Orlov brothers’ from Georgia. He informs on his father to the authorities and disappears into a witness protection programme. The novel opens several years later with the murder of one of the firm’s senior lawyers by the Russian ‘clients’, which prompts Single & Single to go into meltdown, Tiger to disappear, and Oliver to come out of hiding and embark on a desperate quest to track down his estranged father.
2001 The Constant Gardener – Astonishingly posh diplomat’s wife, Tessa Quayle, discovers a big pharmaceutical company is illegally trialling a new drug in Kenya, with disastrous results among its poor and powerless patients. She embarks on a furious campaign to expose this wickedness and is murdered by contract killers. The novel combines flashbacks explaining the events leading up to her murder, with her Old Etonian husband’s prolonged quest to discover the truth about her death.
2003 Absolute Friends – Former public school head prefect and champion fast bowler Ted Mundy befriends the radical leader Sasha in the radical Berlin of the late 1960s. Years later he is approached by Sasha, now living in East Germany, who says he wants to spy for the West, and thus begins Ted’s career in espionage. This in turn comes to a grinding halt with the fall of the Berlin Wall. A decade later, Sasha contacts Ted again and unwittingly lures him into a Machiavellian American sting operation, whereby their entire previous careers are turned against them to make them look like dangerous ‘terrorists’, a set-up which climaxes with them being shot down like dogs. First ‘historic’ part good – second part overblown anti-Americanism.
2006 The Mission Song – Ex-public school boy Bruno ‘Salvo’ Salvador, a half-Congolese translator, is invited by British intelligence to lend his knowledge of arcane African languages and dialects to an unofficial meeting of three leaders of Congo’s warring factions. These have been brought together by a British ‘syndicate’, ostensibly in the name of negotiating peace, but who are actually planning to engineer a coup and impose a compliant leader who will allow his Western backers to plunder the country’s mineral resources. When Salvo learns this he sets out on a quixotic mission to reveal the ‘truth’.
2008 A Most Wanted Man – Posh Hamburg-based British banker Tommy Brue and posh refugee lawyer Annabel Richter find themselves involved in a conspiracy by German security services to frame an apparently innocent Muslim refugee and, along with him, the moderate organiser of Muslim charities, as ‘terrorists’. But this dubious German plan is itself trumped by the CIA who betray all the characters in the book, violently kidnap the two Muslims, and take them away for indefinite incarceration and torture.
2010 Our Kind of Traitor – An Oxford don and his barrister girlfriend on holiday in Antigua get involved with a Russian mafiosi who wants to ‘defect’ to the British, exposing ‘corruption in high places’ – and end up playing crucial roles in the mission to rescue him and his family which, however, does not go according to plan.
2013 A Delicate Truth – British civil servant Toby Bell uncovers evidence that his Minister helped arrange an extraordinary rendition, involving US mercenaries, British soldiers and a Foreign Office observer, supposedly to capture a high value terrorist on Gibraltar except there was no terrorist. Instead a Muslim woman and her baby were shot to ribbons. Three years later, the retired FO man, Sir Christopher (‘Kit’) Probyn is approached out of the blue by one of the British soldiers who’s been haunted by the debacle, and this triggers a joint attempt by him and Toby to present the evidence to their superiors, to confront the architect of the fiasco, and then to inform the Press – in all of which they miserably fail.

Archangel by Robert Harris (1998)

Go back to New York, Dr Kelso, and play your games of history in somebody else’s country, because this isn’t England or America, the past isn’t safely dead here. In Russia, the past carries razors and a pair of handcuffs.’ (p.167)

Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso is a historian of modern Russia. Described by one Sunday supplement as a ‘battered Byron’, he is in fact ‘a fattening and hungover middle-aged historian in a black corduroy suit’ (p.55). He’s overweight, drinks too much, despises his colleagues and has for many years devoted more time and energy to appearing on the telly and churning out articles and reviews for fashionable magazines than doing any actual historical research, and hence the envy and contempt of his peers.

He along with a cross-selection of colleagues are gathered at a mind-numbingly boring conference about archives and research in the newly post-communist Russia. Kelso’s three marriages and three subsequent divorces, his general air of shambling drunken disreputableness, the way he drinks so much he throws up and the next morning causes a kerfuffle when he hungoverly stumbles out of the first lecture of the day, all this gives him the feel of a Kingsley Amis character.

But he is a Kingsley Amis character thrown into a gripping thriller, because the reason he’s so hungover is that he was up half the night drinking with a mysterious, raddled old Muscovite who had attended one of his anti-communist lectures, tutting all the way through, and had then cornered the good doctor to put him ‘right’ about Comrade Stalin. Over drinks in his shabby hotel room Kelso and the Russkie – Papu Rapava – get really drunk while Papu pours out his heart about how misunderstood kind Comrade Stalin was.

In the middle of the tears and vodka Rapava tells an extraordinary story about being present at Stalin’s death. He had been a young security guard to Lavrenty Beria, the feared head of Soviet Secret Police, when one night he was summoned to drive his boss out to Stalin’s dacha. Here they found the old tyrant lying paralysed by a stroke on a sofa. Instead of calling for a doctor, Beria ordered Rapava to help him look for a key, the key to Stalin’s safe. When Rapava finds it, stashed down the sofa beside the comatose dictator, Beria orders him to drive them back to Moscow, to the Kremlin, where Beria bluffs his way past the guards and then uses the key to open Stalin’s private safe and take from it a metal box containing Stalin’s most private papers. Then they drive to Beria’s Moscow house, where Beria orders Rapava to bury the box in the back garden. And then they drive back to Stalin’s dacha in time to be present with other officials at Stalin’s actual death (it took three days, apparently).

However, in the turmoil following the dictator’s death, Beria is himself arrested, tortured and then executed. Rapava, as his security guard and driver, finds himself sentenced to fifteen years in a labour camp above the Arctic circle, experiences which he gruesomely recounts to the pissed Kelso… But, he drunkenly tells Kelso, he never told anyone, he hugged his secret all this time…

While Kelso is throwing up in the loo, Rapava staggers to his feet and out of the hotel, and although Kelso pathetically chases him down the stairs, across the lobby and out into the freezing night, he loses him. Damn.

Next day Kelso tells his closest confidante among the delegates about this strange encounter, and decides to track Rapava down. First of all he goes to visit a scary relic of the communist regime, Vladimir Mamantov, to interview him about the notebook, to try and get background information from one of the few surviving communists who were in Stalin’s circle. But Mamantov immediately pounces on Kelso’s hints. The notebook?’ Mamantov says. ‘Stalin’s notebook, the one referred to in all the memoirs but which was never found?’ Hmm. Maybe not such a good idea to have let him know. Kelso departs with a bad feeling…

Russian spies

At this point the narrative switches to follow Major Feliks Suvorin and Lieutenant Vissari Netto of the Russian security service. It turns out that they are monitoring Mamantov’s apartment and phone calls. Mamantov is still a threatening political presence. He took part in the 1991 coup against Gorbachev and was imprisoned for 18 months, but now he’s at liberty again, with widespread connections and the money to fund an unreconstructed communist magazine, Aurora.

Thus the security services tap Kelso’s phone call to Mamantov and their subsequent conversation. Thus they learn about the fabled Stalin notebook. Shortly after Kelso’s visit Mamantov’s mad, old wife leaves the building with her minder for her regular morning walk. When she doesn’t return for some time, then not at all, the watching officers nervously realise something’s up. When they break into the apartment they find his wife tied and bound in the wardrobe. Mamontov had dressed in her clothes to fool them, escape surveillance and is now on the loose.

R.J. O’Brian

So now Kelso, Mamatov and the security services are all after the fabled notebook. That night Kelso goes to the bar where the drunken Rapava had told him his prostitute daughter works, the Robotnik, in a bid to track down Rapava. Here Kelso bumps into a brash, loud American TV journalist, R.J. O’Brian, who, it turns out, also knows all about the notebook. How? He’d been hanging round the conference centre and the academic Kelso confided in had told him (the swine). So now Kelso, O’Brian, Mamantov and Russian security are all after the damn notebook.

Rapava’s daughter

Kelso gets the barman to point out Papava’s daughter, Zinaida, who turns out to be a battle-hardened whore, well used to fleecing foreign tourists. Kelso only wants her to drive him to her father’s apartment but she insists on the full rate ($400). She dumps him in a terrifying urban wasteland of badly built high-rises on the outskirts of Moscow, telling him the block, floor and apartment number.

In a tense, scary scene Kelso makes his way in the late-night darkness through the utterly empty snow-swept high rises, climbing the piss-smelling, vomit-strewn stairwell up to Rapava’s apartment where he finds the door hanging off its hinges and the flat more systematically ripped to pieces than anything he’s ever seen. Foolishly, he enters and investigates, eventually coming across the bathroom sink full of blood and shreds of scalp with hair attached. He stumbles back out towards the lift – only to find Rapava’s body hanging from the lift cables – or what’s left of his body, completely eviscerated, looking more like a side of beef, and with his penis cut off and shoved into what’s left of his mouth.

In the police station

Kelso runs to the nearest apartment and gets them to call the police. He finds himself being arrested and taken to the cells where he spends a very worrying night. But in the morning he is not charged or beaten up under interrogation (as he feared), but released into the care of one of the security officers we’ve been getting to know in the parallel sequence of scenes about them, notably the young westernised Major Feliks Suvorin.

Suvorin asks Kelso why he went to see such a dangerous man as Mamantov? Does he realise that by mentioning the notebook he signed Rapava’s death warrant – for it was Mamantov, when still a senior KGB official, who had interrogated Rapava after the fall of Beria, and then upon his release from the labour camp. Thus he knew that all the other witnesses to Stalin’s death were dead. Thus he knew that what Kelso took for his own clever and subtle references to ‘a contact’ who had mentioned the notebook, could be only one person. Thus Mamantov absconded from his apartment and went direct to torture and murder Rapava. ‘And you know what, Dr Kelso? Now he may come looking for you.’

This is the scene where the quote from the top of the page comes, with Suvorin telling Kelso he is out of his depth in the jungle which is post-communist Russia. ‘Go back to the West. Leave while you are still alive.’ Then Suvorin drives him back to the hotel and tells him to catch the flight home along with the other academics. Here Kelso showers and tries to wash away the horrors of the previous night.

Zinaida’s note

The next morning he joins the waiting historians filtering into the big tourist coach, jostled along by their ‘minder’, Olga, with her prodding umbrella, to be driven off to Sheremetevo airport. At the last moment Kelso is cornered by O’Brian who wants them to go 50-50 on the ‘scoop’, but Kelso says, ‘No deal’ and happily drives off with the others to the airport. Here they bicker and catfight as only academics can, but then Kelso sees Zinaida standing on the other side of the departure lounge glass. He goes outside to talk to her and she lures him into the nearby multi-story car park where she reveals that her father had visited her just a few days ago, drunk and apologetic, and left her a scribbled letter. It says he left her something valuable – and tells her where it’s hidden. It must be the notebook!

Kelso looks at his colleagues queuing up to go through passport control. He knows his visa has only one more day to run after which he will be staying in Russia illegally. He knows it is crazy to go with a mercenary and unreliable prostitute. But he is not just a historian, he is bitten by the deeper bug of needing to know. He gets into the car. He says, ‘take me there.’

In the lock-up

Zinaida drives Kelso to the derelict garages, part of the complex of high rises where he found Rapava’s body. Presumably the police didn’t know that Rapava owned a garage and he went to his death, heroically defying incomprehensible torture pain, not revealing it, so his daughter could have it, it and whatever money it brings. A bitter gift from a distant and difficult father. Now Kelso jumps down into the garage well and, pulling away the sides, quickly comes across a metal box. Inside is a leather folder containing a notebook and papers! It is at this moment that the garage door opens from the outside.

It is a typically heart-stopping moment in a novel full of them: will it Mamantov and his psychopath torturers? Will they eviscerate the girl in front of Kelso and then start on him? But no, it is in fact the irritating, boosterish Yank TV journalist, O’Brian. Zinaida, the hard-bitten whore, pulls the gun she always carries and there is a tense stand-off, which Kelso helps reconcile into a deal. O’Brian will pay Zinaida for the book; and gets to film Kelso re-enacting the discovery then opening the notebook then reading it.

Stalin’s notebook

In fact, the notebook turns out to be completely different from what everyone expected. Far from being some kind of record of the great dictator’s mind and plans, it turns out to be the diary of a 21-year-old girl, Anna Safanova, a keen Komsomol Party member, born and raised in Archangel in Russian’s far north. The diary begins as Anna is plucked from provincial obscurity and invited to come and work at Stalin’s dacha, where she is instructed by the head of the staff in all his little ways and foibles. The diary describes her excitement at this amazing stroke of luck, and logs the fairly innocuous moments over the coming weeks until the moment when Stalin asks her to dance for him one evening – at which point the journal breaks off. Kelso notes that the next forty or so pages have been carefully torn out.

Turning to the other papers in the folder, Kelso quickly realises they amount to an official profile of Anna Safanova, appraising her fitness, genetic inheritance, ideological commitment and so on. Kelso and Zinaida both realise at the same time that she was one of a number of fit, healthy, young women brought to Stalin for him to breed with. Anna’s diary breaks off at the point the Great Leader made his pass at her. Zinaida is physically sick. She throws the notebook at the men, ‘Take the damned thing… Take it. Keep it.’ (p.224)

But O’Brian asks the key question: ‘Could this Anna Safanova possibly still be alive? Whatever happened to her? Let’s go up to Archangel and find out: are you up for that, Dr Kelso?’ And Kelso, like a fool, agrees.

The drive to Archangel

The two men load a four-by-four with petrol, food, filming and editing equipment and set off on the long, long drive to Archangel in the frozen north. After the gruelling journey they arrive to find it a shabby backwater but manage to bluff their way into the local party headquarters where they bribe a resentful old communist to open up the local files. The files covering the two years when Anna Safanova would have joined the communist party are mysteriously missing – but the official comes up with the surprising news that Anna’s mother is still alive.

Meanwhile, Suvorin picks up and interrogates Zinaida. She’s tough so he drives her to the morgue where he shows her her father’s tortured body. She screams and collapses. ‘This is what they’ll do to you and Kelso when they find him; so where is he?’ She tells him. She tells him Kelso and O’Brian have the notebook and have driven to Archangel to find the girl whose diary it is. Suvorin calls his office and makes arrangements for a plane to fly him north.

Meanwhile, Kelso and O’Brian drive to the rundown clapboard house of Vavara Safanova, now a bent 85-year-old crone. She gives vivid descriptions of her childhood after the revolution, she remembers the British ships which arrived to put it down in 1918, her education, joining the party and marriage to Mikhail. Then she recalls their daughter, Anna, her birth and childhood and growing up beautiful, a devoted communist, and how it was these qualities which made the local party recommend her to take part in a mass Komsomol parade in Moscow – and then a few weeks later, the mysterious summons, to return to Moscow and become an assistant to senior party leaders.

Eight months later Anna returned to Archangel heavily pregnant. When the baby was due, she haemorrhaged and the doctors couldn’t save her, but they saved the baby, a boy. Vavara and her husband never saw him. He was sent to be fostered by a family named Chizhikov in a settlement east of Archangel. She points it out on O’Brian’s map, at the end of a single road, deep in the taiga. One day her husband set off to the settlement to find the child. Five days later his dead body came floating down the river. He’d had a heart attack, they said…

O’Brian overcomes all Kelso’s objections – the road will be dreadful, there’ll be no gas stations or hotels, it will be snowy wilderness, it will be dangerous – and insists they drive out there straightaway. They set off and it takes hours, as the road by the river gives way to snow-covered track and then to just a deeply snowed-in gap between the endless tress on either side. Harris vividly describes the eeriness of snowy forest, and Kelso’s mounting anxiety. They are driving slowly enough to notice a clearing off to one side and – hang on – is that smoke? At that moment the 4-by-4 hits a really big rut and the whole front end nose-dives into it and the car stalls.

In the forest

The novel now takes on the intensity and spine-chilling quality of a horror story. Kelso and O’Brian walk towards the settlement of houses, noting the smoke has now ceased. It is completely abandoned and ruined. They notice a small cemetery of graves off to one side and Kelso notes that some of the photos – placed Russian-style on each grave – have been defaced. O’Brian says he’ll go back to the car to get the satellite phone. He is gone a long time. When Kelso follows his tracks they go back to the car alright, but then off into the woods in the opposite direction. The novel becomes very scary. Moving warily through the close-knit deep-snowed-in trees Kelso hears a moaning and a creaking sound. He comes across O’Brian caught in a rope snare, hanging upside down by his ankle from a tree. Kelso cuts him down and O’Brian moans something about ‘I saw him’. At that moment Kelso becomes aware of a primitive ape-like face staring at him from between the trees.

Stalin’s son

A rough, rude peasant in animal skins and boots emerges from the pine and shepherds them at gun point to a basic cabin in another part of the woods, skirting the booby traps and mantraps he has planted everywhere. ‘Are you the ones?’ he asks them, ‘the promised ones?’ He sits them down and then shaves with a razor sharp knife, taking off his beard to reveal a full bushy black moustache; and then changes his clothes to put on a Russian military uniform. Kelso is shocked, horrified: it is Stalin to the life. Without a doubt this is the son, the son of the greatest mass murderer of the 20th century, of all time.

What emerges over the next few pages is too weird to be true, but is true: Stalin’s son by Anna Safanova was spirited off into this isolated settlement where he was brought up by four couples of hand-picked fanatical communists, indoctrinating him with his father’s beliefs, making him listen to endless gramophone records of Stalin’s speeches, making him read and reread the twelve volumes of Stalin’s Collected works until, as now, before Kelso and O’Brian, he does a word perfect imitation of his father, lazily half closing his eyes, enquiring why they are so nervous, putting the fear of God into them.

As the boy came of age, he began flexing his psychological powers and tyrannising his minders. As a teenager he found one of his guardian guilty of ‘defeatism’. He was the first to be interrogated and executed. Then there was an outbreak of ‘right-deviationism’, as some of them discussed giving up and returning to civilisation. These criminals had to be punished. And then the sabotage started, as the fish in the river were poisoned and food went missing from traps. When one of the minders was found prowling round after curfew he too was interrogated, tortured and admitted all his crimes, before being executed. His wife hanged herself a week later.

Now Kelso realises the grisly significance of the little cemetery. One by one Stalin’s son had picked his minders and carers off until he was alone. In an appalling sidelight, Kelso gets to see papers on his desk, among the well-thumbed volumes of Stalin’s speeches, each of them headed ‘Confession’, and realises some of them are by outsiders who stumbled across the settlement, including two carefree hippy travellers in 1968. They too were tortured, interrogated and executed.

Kelso realises they are at the mercy of a paranoid psychopath, a kind of quintessence of Stalin who reveals the secret of Stalin’s success: creating an atmosphere of total fear.

The Spetsnaz

Meanwhile, Major Suvorin arrives in Archangel to find the local militia unhelpful to the point of rudeness. When he phones his boss back in Moscow he discovers the reason why: the story of the missing notebook having been found and Zinaida’s account of it recording the breeding and birth of Stalin’s son and heir, have reached the highest circles ie the President. And the order has come back to strangle and suppress it; to kill everyone involved; to kill the son but also the two foreigners.

The westernised Suvorin is appalled, but those are the orders. The militia who seemed so rude are members of the Spetsnaz, Russia’s special forces. Assassins. They mock the soft westernised Suvorin as he struggles to clamber into the big snowplough they’ve commandeered. They have earpiece radio comunications, black balaclavas and loads of machine guns. They set off in the snowplough up the same road Kelso and O’Brian took just a few hours before.

Meanwhile, Kelso and O’Brian are still in the hut, being lectured by Stalin’s son who is quoting his father’s speeches at length, thinking things can’t get much weirder – when a skull appears at the window. It is one of the Spetsnaz men. In one uncanny movement the son pulls up a trapdoor and disappears below the floorboards. At that moment the special forces burst into the hut, push Kelso and O’Brian up against the wall and handcuff their wrists. ‘Under the floorboards’, they say and a Spetsnaz man opens up with a machine gun, systematically perforating the floorboards with bullets till the magazine runs out. He slots in a new ammo clip and starts again. But when they pull up the trap door they find it leads to a tunnel. The son is on the loose.

To be brief – he kills them all, luring one man into a man-trap, and when another returns to help him, killing the second one then shooting the trapped one in the head. Then he hunts down the last one, the arrogant major. Bang. Dead.

During this slaughter Major Suvorin has finally clambered out of the snow plough and made it up to the hut. Here he releases Kelso and O’Brian and asks them what the hell is going on. All three of them hear the bursts of machine gun fire, the screaming, as in a very scary horror film. When Suvorin reluctantly goes back towards the snowplough he finds the corpses of the Spetsnaz men and the snowplough exploded and on fire. He is stuck here.

In his absence O’Brian takes the satellite radio into a clearing to try and call for help from the outside world. Kelso examines the papers on the son’s chaotic desk and is piecing together more of the terrible story of the settlement when the son magically reappears in the hut and shepherds Kelso towards the river, picking up O’Brian on the way. Here there is a boat with outboard motor, and into it they climb, pull the cord and out into the river they go. Suvorin hears the motor and runs in its direction through the trees, arriving to see the boat round a corner in the huge river. The sound dwindles to silence. He is on his own in his useless western clothes, abandoned in the middle of the Russian forest as the snow falls.

To their (and the reader’s) amazement and relief, Kelso and O’Brian find themselves arriving at Archangel, back in the real world after the hair-raising horror of the wilderness, and the son steering them into a quayside where they moor. As they go up the steps it seems as if the son’s expecting them to take the lead; they are, after all ‘the ones’ that he was expecting. They will know what to do next. In fact Kelso and O’Brian run for the nearest cab and fling dollars at the driver to take them to the station, where they jump the long Russian queue and throw more dollars at the ticket desk until they get tickets for the huge, long train which is about to pull out for Moscow.

On the train

They find their ‘sleeper’ compartment, make a meal of the crappy food they just had time to buy, stare at each other disbelievingly, and fall asleep, into a deep, deep sleep punctuated only by the announcements of all the little stations on their 800-mile journey. When Kelso awakes, he groggily realises he’s slept for 9 hours straight. Looking out the window he sees a picture of Stalin float by and thinks he must still be asleep and dreaming. But at the next settlement they pass through there are people holding up pictures of Stalin and Lenin; and at the next one, a village band has assembled and he catches a snatch of the old Soviet national anthem. Something weird is happening.

Kelso stumbles into the corridor and makes his way through the long, dirty, smelly and increasingly congested carriages. He has a growing sense of fear. When he opens the door to the fifth carriage his fears are confirmed. In the eerie and terrifying way the son was able to appear and disappear in the forest, had a sixth sense about the arrival of the Spetsnaz and effortlessly outwitted them – somehow, magically, he managed to make it onto the train.

Here he is, fast asleep, the spitting image of the virile young Stalin, and surrounded by an awed crowd of admirers. As the train pulls into a station, Kelso becomes aware of packs of black-uniformed young men getting onto the train and then he sees Vladimir Mamantov among them. Kelso runs in a panic back towards his compartment and grabs the folder with the notebook and papers in. He is about to start tearing them up when O’Brian comes fully awake and tries to stop him. They argue and O’Brian punches Kelso to the floor, but the latter manages to escape and run down the corridor, now pursued by some of the blackshirts.

He hurtles into a spare compartment, locks the door, gets out his cigarette lighter and sets the first paper alight… just as the door is kicked open and brutal hands wrench the paper and folder out of his grasp, pushing him down onto the seat and pinning him there. And then the grizzled, terrifying old communist party fanatic, Mamantov, enters the compartment and sits down, wagging an admonitory finger at foolish Dr Kelso.

Mamantov’s story

Mamantov tells him the full story. He knew about the notebook from the beginning. Rapava told him about it and where it was buried. Mamantov knew all about the girl Anna Safanova, about Archangel, about Stalin’s son. He had even travelled up there, out into the woods, and met him. But think about it – If he, Mamantov, announced that he had discovered Stalin’s son and heir in the middle of nowhere, nobody would believe him, they’d laugh at him and at this pathetically transparent ruse to get the communists back into power.

No, he needed someone who would verify it all for him, an objective authority. And who could be more objective than a historian, not just a Russian historian – too compromised – no, a western historian, ideally one with a well-known antipathy to Stalin and all his works. Someone like… the famous TV historian, Dr Christopher Kelso!

And so Mamantov had used his money and influence to arrange the entire conference that Kelso was attending, had ensured that Kelso’s name was on the guest list, had ensured that he actually attended. And it was Mamantov who arranged for comrade Rapava to sit in the front row tutting through Kelso’s lecture damning Stalin, and then to buttonhole Kelso and end up telling him all about the notebook. He had counted on Kelso’s addiction to history, his need to find the truth.

And he had paid O’Brian to film everything. It wasn’t a coincidence that O’Brian had attended the conference, pretending to be sniffing around for a story – because he knew the story well in advance. It wasn’t a coincidence that O’Brian was in the Robotnik nightclub when Kelso went to find Rapava’s daughter. It wasn’t a coincidence that O’Brian walked into the garage as Kelso uncovered the notebook. Because it had all been set up and planned in advance, so that every step of the way O’Brian could document and film the odyssey of an authoritative and sceptical western historian, who would validate every successive finding.

And when O’Brian left Kelso in the hut in the forest, as the son was dealing with the Spetsnaz forces, O’Brian wasn’t just ringing the outside world – he was sending his long report, complete with all the rushes, back to his TV station in America, a station which – out of courtesy – of course shared the report and rushes with Russian TV.

So that while Kelso slept, the sensational story had topped world newscasts, but especially Russian newscasts, for the past nine hours. Stalin had a son. He was brought up in the wild north woods, a rough and ready chip off the old block. Now he is returning to Moscow to heal Russia’s ills, to clean out the corruption, the prostitution and AIDS and drug addiction, to clear away the mafia and the corrupt politicians, to restore Russia to her former glory, a mighty nation to be feared and respected.

‘And all with your help, Dr Kelso. All with your invaluable help.’

At the station

Intercut with this dazzling revelation had been scenes at the HQ of security forces. While the train had been stationary at the stop where Mamantov and his black shirted men boarded it, the security forces had been asking their political leaders what to do: should they storm it to neutralise Mamantov and the son? But that risked a blaze of publicity, with attendant casualties and the possible death of Stalin’s son?

Down from the top comes the order: No. Let it be. Too risk. — Suddenly there is panic throughout the administration. In the office of the President they don’t know which way things will go, will the return of Stalin’s son lead to a popular uprising in his favour? So feverish, so febrile, is the atmosphere of post-communist Russia and Moscow which Harris has painted, that you believe anything is possible.

The head of security calls off all the surveillance on Mamantov and all records of it to be destroyed. If the son takes power, everyone had better start protecting their asses. He also calls off the guard which Suvorin had set on Zinaida’s apartment after he’d taken her to the morgue. So that when she wakes up and finds the security man at her door gone, she wonders what’s going on – then she switches on the TV. It is wall-to-wall coverage of Stalin’s son’s return. My God!

But she is her father’s daughter, tough as boots, and she takes the pistol he gave her and slips it into her handbag. She takes the metro to Moscow central station and, in her dark jacket and skirt and glasses, can pass for one of the most dedicated of the loyalists who are now flooding into the station, forming a huge crowd expecting the arrival of the new young master, Russia’s saviour.

She elbows her way to the front of the crowd, near to the podium which has been erected for the messiah to make his first speech. The train draws in and slows to a halt, the crowd go wild. A door opens and down steps the handsome charismatic man, spitting image of his father with his big black moustache, followed by the looming presence of Mamantov. They walk towards the podium and start climbing it to address the crowd and at that moment Zinaida draws the pistol from under her coat and takes aim.

And there the novel ends, leaving the future of Russia – and the world – hanging breathlessly in the balance.


The atrocity thriller

In his first three novels Harris perhaps created a new sub-genre, the atrocity thriller, a thriller which revolves around one of the great atrocities or horrors of the twentieth century. His first three novels revolve around, respectively: the Holocaust, the Katyn Massacre and Stalin’s purges. Because Kelso is a historian, Harris is able to intersperse the text with Kelso’s ‘lectures’, thus being able to give the reader devastating indictments of Stalin the man and politician.

In one of these lectures we learn of the way Stalin drove his wives to suicide and systematically murdered all his and their relatives. In another one, we are reminded of the incomprehensible scale of the suffering he imposed on the Russian people – the man-made famines of the 1930s caused by the stupid policy of forced collectivisation and the endless purges which continued right up to the eve of the Second World War and which fatally weakened the Red Army, ensuring it was defeated and pushed back deep into the heart of Russia before it could finally halt the Germans.

Professor I.A. Kuganov estimates that sixty-six million people were killed in the USSR between 1917 and 1953 – shot, tortured, starved mostly, frozen or worked to death. Others say the true figure is a mere forty-five million… Neither estimate, by the way, includes the thirty million now known to have been killed in the Second World War. (p.156)

The current population of Russia is 143.5 million; demographers calculate that, without the enormous loss of life caused by the Bolsheviks, by communism, and specifically by Stalin, the population would be nearer to 300 million. Has any man been responsible for more deaths anywhere at any time? It is the world record.

As with Fatherland and to some extent Enigma, just reading a factual account of the ‘background’ to the story, makes you feel sick.

Russia after the Soviet Union

And then there’s the foreground, the situation of Russia after the collapse of the USSR. Didn’t exactly turn into a capitalist paradise, did it? The end of communism was followed by a calamitous drop in GDP, incomes and welfare, drastic decline in life expectancy, accompanied by a surge in unemployment, alcoholism, drugs, in mafia gangs running drugs and prostitutes, a collapse into criminality at every level, as described by Martin Cruz Smith in his Arkady Renko novels.

All the characters refer to the broken-spirited shabbiness and unfettered criminality of post-communist Russia, there isn’t a building that hasn’t been vandalised or had swastikas spray-painted onto it, there isn’t an official who can’t be bribed or corrupted. It is an almost failed state, deeply humiliated and resentful, which Harris vividly captures in scores of details and bitter exchanges of dialogue, as well as the occasional bit of symbolism.

On the waterfront four giant Red Army men, cast in bronze, stood back to back, facing the four points of the compass, their rifles raised in triumph. At their feet, a pack of wild dogs scavenged among the trash. (p.266)

Style

Once again, Harris suits the style to the subject matter. The core of all his novels is basic ‘modern thriller prose’, but given a slightly different vibe for each book. Fatherland had a rangy American feel; Enigma was slightly but noticeably more formal and old-fashioned, befitting its 1940s setting. And this book’s thriller-speak is inflected towards the English non-public school slangy idiom of its protagonist (who, we learn, was the first boy from his provincial grammar school to go to Cambridge).

Thus a lot of the characters – the Russian gulag survivors, the Russian cops, Fluke and various other academics – say ‘fuck’ quite a lot (‘Fuck you’ says his third wife Margaret down the phone from New York, p.112) [and, as we know from the novels of Martin Cruz Smith, ‘Go fuck your mother’ (p.82, 161) is a favourite Russian expression].

Kelso’s idiom is already fairly coarse but the text becomes considerably more profane once O’Brian arrives with his yankee effing and blinding:

  • The sheer bloody tedium of academic life… (p.41)
  • The end of history, my arse, he thought. This was History’s town. This was History’s bloody country. (p.116)
  • It was vindication. Vindication for twenty years of freezing his arse off in basement archives… (p.193)
  • [O’Brian] raised his hands in disgust. ‘Shit, I can’t stand around here bitching all afternoon…’ (p.220)
  • Oh, fuck it, what did it matter? (p.238)
  • The Office of the President of the Federation had been on the line to Arsenyev, demanding to know (a direct quote from Boris Nikolaevich, apparently) what the fuck was going on? (p.256)
  • ‘Oh, go ahead, enjoy yourself,’ said O’Brian, bitterly. ‘This is my idea of a perfect fucking Friday. Drive eight hundred miles to some dump that looks like Pittsburgh after a nuclear strike to try to find Stalin’s fucking girlfriend -‘ (p.267)

I’m not objecting to the swearing; just pointing out that it’s one of the ways Harris differentiates the style and feel of this one, from the previous two novels.

Prolepsis

  • If Kelso had seen him full-face he probably wouldn’t have recognised him, and then everything would have turned out differently. (p.120)
  • Afterwards, Kelso was to recognise this as the decisive moment: as the point at which he lost control of events. (p.196)
  • It happened with a kind of inexorable logic so that later, when Kelso had the time to review his actions, he still could never identify a precise moment when he could have stopped it, when he could have diverted events on to a different course – (p.216)
  • I am trapped, thought Kelso. I am a victim of historical inevitability. Comrade Stalin would have approved (p.217)

All three of these novels use this device half a dozen times – of the narrator sign-posting important turning points in the narrative with an ominous ‘what if’. They not only indicate important hinges in the narrative but at the same time fill the reader with an undefined sense of dread, that things are going to turn out badly. And all because of a tiny moment, an accident, a coincidence, when things might have gone OK – but didn’t.

It’s a very effective tension-building device, as the novel proceeds into a realm of almost supernatural horror, creating a heart-stopping sense of dread and fear.


Credit

Archangel by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson in 1995. All quotes and references are to the 1996 Arrow Books paperback edition.

The TV series

Archangel was made into a three-part TV adaptation for BBC 1, starring Daniel Craig and broadcast in March 2005, just before his James Bond period started. Craig has the physiognomy of a hardened criminal so it’s always a surprise when he behaves polite and civilised and, as here, almost permanently cowering and scared, not how we normally picture him.

The first two-thirds of the dramatisation follow the book closely, but it makes a major departure when, instead of Zinaida washing her hands of the notebook, going back to her Moscow apartment and leaving the boys to it, in the TV version she teams up with Kelso to steal O’Brian’s car and it is they who drive all the way to Archangel, to track down and interview Anna’s mother together. I guess it’s just a law of film and TV drama that there needs to be a heterosexual love interest (and Kelso and Zinaida in the TV version do indeed end up snogging and shagging and worrying about each other – completely unlike in the novel).

In this version, O’Brian only catches up with them by hiring a private plane to fly him to Archangel. He arrives just after Kelso and Zinaida have had to flee from two ordinary Russian policemen who had been sniffing round their 4-by-4, taking flight and belting down snowy back alleys in an unconvincing chase scene (not in the novel). While they’re hiding behind a shed, a shiny BMW pulls up, a scary man in a leather jacket gets out and shoots both the cops dead at point-blank range. He is later revealed to be one of Mamantov’s crew but this scene, with its cynically sadistic violence involving the gross execution of a man already on the ground wounded, is not in the novel.

The scenes in the forest are also made to be more violent than the book. Instead of being on his own, the TV son-of-Stalin has two of the old minders still pottering about to help him. Well, the Spetsnaz just shoot them down in cold blood, with sickening brutality. But hey, using a cool silenced pistol which makes that cool schtook schtook sound. Almost always TV and film make novels more violent, and more cynically, disgustingly violent.

And instead of the three Spetsnaz men of the novel, in the TV version there are more like eight, not least so they can all jump out the back of an armoured vehicle to the accompaniment of thumping action music. These TV-version Spetsnaz threaten Kelso and O’Brian much more aggressively than in the book, and are on the brink of shooting our boys dead on the spot when Suvorin intervenes, holding a pistol to the Spetsnaz leader’s head in a melodramatic Mexican stand-off (not in the book).

It’s at this over-the-top moment that the son, hidden in the trees, shoots the first of the soldiers so that Kelso, O’Brian and Suvorin can take advantage of the ensuing confusion to turn and flee. Unfortunately, while his boys are dealing with the shooter, the hard-man leader of the Spetsnaz pursues our chaps through the woods, shooting Suvorin dead (not in the book) then shooting O’Brian dead (not in the book, in which he lives to accompany Kelso and the son back to Archangel by boat and then onto the train), then tracking Kelso down to the pier by the motorboat. Then, in a scene we’ve all seen in hundreds of movies, he slowly, gloatingly lifts his rifle to execute the cornered Kelso when – … you’ll never guess! A shot rings out and the baddy crumples to the floor! (Not in the novel.) Cut to a shot of the son-of-Stalin on the river bank, lowering his rifle. He has saved Kelso, who now jumps into the boat and putters off down the river and arrives in Archangel on his own, making it onto the train alone (unlike in the novel).

Instead of accompanying him (as in the book), in the TV version the son returns to the hut, dresses in his father’s field marshal uniform, and waits in a clearing for a helicopter – Mamantov’s helicopter – to arrive and collect him.

I prefer books and novels to TV drama and films because they can be so much subtler, more unexpected and thought-provoking. All the changes made in the TV version move it in the direction of empty cliché, clunky stereotype and – above all – substantially more and more unpleasant, violence – instead of jolting and surprising you as the novel consistently does.

It is interesting, unexpected and satisfying that in the novel Zinaida remains a tough bitch, who in no way gets close to Kelso, instead maintaining her independence and aloofness. It is lowering, deadening and thumpingly predictable that in the TV version Kelso and Zinaida end up having a ‘romance’ (‘Be careful darling,’ she whispers to him outside Vavara’s cottage as he and O’Brian prepare to drive off into the forest, obviously without her – for ‘This is man’s work, honey.’ It might as well be a 1950s Western – tired, predictable and revoltingly sexist.)

Not only does the characterisation become cruder, but TV and film invariably make stories like this more violent, blood-thirsty, cruel and sadistic. The unnecessary execution of the policemen is followed by the unnecessary execution of the old couple in the woods and followed by the unnecessary execution of Suvorin and then of O’Brian. All this violence ends up merely shocking for its own sake, sickening and then deadening the nerves. In the novel the violence is kept to the minimum needed in order to create a powerful feeling of dread ie only three Spetsnaz are killed by the son, just enough to create a sense of his almost supernatural mastery of the woods. In the TV version it is just bang you’re dead, bang you’re dead, bang you’re dead. The effect is deadening – dulling the mind and the senses.

The novel ends with an amazing cliff-hanger, with Zinaida pulling out her pistol to shoot the son but then stopping – leaving none of us knowing what happens next, whether she shoots or misses. This creates an awesome effect, a powerful last twist to the fiction, letting our imaginations run wild about what might happen next, including the Nightmare Scenario where Stalin’s son lives to take over modern Russia.

All of this, along with all its possible consequences and implications, along with everything thought-provoking and intelligent and suspenseful, is discarded in the TV version. Here Zinaida just pulls out her pistol and shoots the son dead. Bang you’re dead (again). End of. All over. Yawn. Time to turn off the TV and go to bed.

Is it a law that TV and film adaptations of books must make them duller, less imaginative, more clichéd, more sexist, more violent and more insultingly stupid?

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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