Nam June Paik at Tate Modern

Nam June Paik (1932 – 2006) was a Korean American artist. He worked with a variety of media and is considered the founder of video art. He is credited with an early usage (1974) of the term “electronic super highway” in application to telecommunications. (Wikipedia)

This is a major retrospective exhibition of the work of Korean-American artist Nam June Paik, a collaboration between Tate Modern and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

It’s the most comprehensive survey of the artist’s work ever staged in the UK, bringing together over 200 works – from early compositions and performances, to sculptures, photos and paintings, magazines and drawings – through to rooms full of videos and large-scale television installations, and a final room which is a large scale, pulsating and very loud, multi-media rock installation.

Sistine Chapel (1993) Courtesy of the Estate of Nam June Paik

The Korean War ended in 1953 with South Korea saved from communist tyranny, and the country which saved it – at such cost in blood and money – the USA, proceeded to invest heavily in the South, fuelling a technology and consumer boom.

Paik developed as an artist during this boom and right from the start was interested in the incongruity of a still, in many ways undeveloped, traditional and Buddhist culture taking on the trappings of Middle American consumer capitalism. Hence his frequent images and assemblies playing with and highlighting the clash of these two cultures.

TV Buddha by Nam June Paik (1974) Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

When he, inevitably, traveled to America, he was put in touch with other opponents of the swamping consumer culture, the Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg, or the collection of artists musicians and performers at the Black Mountain College, North Carolina, which was home to all sorts of eminent artists and performers, notably the composer John Cage and the choreographer Merce Cunningham.

Cage had an explosive impact on young Paik – he showed him that art can be made out of anything, incorporate any technology, and use chance and randomness. A man on stage twiddling through radio stations can, in the right circumstances be a work of art. A television showing an endless loop of imagery, or weird incandescent patterns you’ve generated to be played through it… or a TV with a magnet on top which distorts the images, or a large magnetic loops around the front with a fluctuating current going through it which makes the images bend and distort.

Why can’t all or any of this be art? After all, this was the age of the atom bomb and the Cold War, when the entire world might be reduced to a smouldering cinder in half an hour if someone pressed the wrong button. How could you possibly go on painting like Rembrandt or Constable in a world like that?

You needed something that responded to the urgency and the crisis of the times. And television seemed to be the new medium, the one through which entertainment and government lies poured in equal measure. A medium which could potentially be used for education and to bring the world together. Or to promote lies and ideology which would tear the world apart.

Why not address its ever-growing centrality, deconstruct it, take it to bits, satirise it, parody it, build sculptures out of it?

TV robots by Nam June Paik

Room by room

This exhibition feels really comprehensive. It’s massive and feels packed with stuff, but still manages to be imaginatively spaced and staged. Its twelve big rooms contain:

Introduction

Paik travelled to work in the US, Germany and Japan. He always questioned not just national borders but professional demarcations – and liked working with collaborators, not just artists, but dancers and musicians, and also fleets of technicians who helped him build robots and experiment with TV technology.

Buddhism. Many of his inventions use Buddhist motifs, from the image of a Buddha statue relayed via a CCTV at the start, to the penultimate room which contains a single lit candle with a camera pointing at it, and the image of the flickering flame reproduced on screens and projected onto the wall.

TV Garden

‘A future landscape where technology is an integral part of the natural world.’ The idea is supposedly related to Paik’s Buddhist feel for the way everything and everyone is connected in the spirit world and, increasingly, in a world dominated by new technology. But it is in fact a load of rubber plants with TV monitors arranged among them.

TV Garden 1974-1977 (2002) Tate Modern 2019. Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf

Gooogling images of this, you can see that in some places the plants were set among stones in what looks like an actual low-growing garden. Tell you where would be a good place for these – the greenhouse at the Barbican.

Global Groove

According to the wall label:

‘This colourful fast-paced video mixes high and popular cultures, with imagery from traditional and contemporary, Western and non-Western sources.’

Far out, man! Look at the crazy picture distortion and mirroring effects! Top of the Pops 1973!!

From quite early on you get the feeling that all of this – the obsession with TV, the notion of the global village, lumbering robots, pop music and pop videos – it all seems incredibly dated. When I saw that the magnets placed around TV sets were being used to distort speeches by Richard Nixon I realised were in that kind of art, art gallery, curatorial time loops which is obsessed with the 1960s and their crappy hangover in the 1970s. The Vietnam War, the Beatles, Allen Ginsberg chanting blues to his harmonium, Woodstock, Watergate – yeah, man, it was all one heavy trip.

Even in the massive multi-media ‘experience’ which climaxes the exhibition in which a disorientiating stream of intercut images and clips and sounds and music are projected onto the walls and ceiling of the final room, I was astonished when prolonged clips came up of Janis Joplin singing her heart out. She died of a heroin overdose in died 1970.

In one darkened room is a huge wall of TV sets with other big TV monitors on the other walls and it seems to be playing a kind of multinational, global mashup of videos from various cultures, all treated to look over-coloured, cut-up and treated and all playing to… a soundtrack of Beatles songs! – titled Video Commune (Beatles beginning To End) and dating from 1970. Old. Old, old, old.

It is all just about near enough to be sort of familiar, but also old enough to smell musty like grandad.

Electronic music

Paik actually studied to be a classical musician and was an extremely able pianist. Some of the clips of Beethoven featuring in various vidoes are played by him. But when he moved to Germany in 1956 and met Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage, it blew his mind daddy-oh.

In 1963 he hosted a one-man show at a villa converted into a gallery stuffed with immersive environments and sculptures which required audience involvement. There were musical instruments modified by the artist, three customised pianos in the Cage manner (Cage composed quite a lot of music for pianos which had had nuts and bolts and screws and elastic bands inserted between the keys or into the wires. They’re surprisingly listenable. Paik took this approach to the next level.

Zen for Wind took lots of random dangling objects which a breath of wind made brush against each other, jingle jangle. Visitors could record their own sounds and snippets on tape recorders and hear them reproduced at random through loudspeakers.

Paik’s friend the German artist Joseph Beuys destroyed one of the pianos and Paik liked it so much he left it on display. Ah, those were the days. Such rebels, back in a time when rebellion had meaning.

Some of Paik’s Cage-like music, some of the dangling objects and one of the pianos are on display here in this exhibition. It was ironic to read on all the wall labels how Paik wanted his visitors to interact with the pieces and then turn to them to find them all protected by plastic covers or behind tripwires which set off alarms.

Installation view of Nam June Paik at Tate Modern

No, children, you could play with these dusty old toys once upon a time, even smash them up for fun, but now times are very different and every scrap of paper and piece of old cable which was ever handled by a Great Artist is now a precious Work of Art, which would fetch millions on the current art market, and so must be protected, curated, catalogued and carefully stored away.

That’s what happens to avant-gardes – they fall into the hands of galleries and curators where their entire disruptive, anarchic charge is neutralised, surgically removed, and replaced by polite wall labels and security barriers.

Merce Cunningham

There’s a room devoted to Paik’s collaborations with and riffing off the work of Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham, including the film Zen for Film a, blank film ‘exploring themes of emptiness, boredom and random interference’ – and Merce by Merce by Paik.

Charlotte Moorman

As a thoroughly trained classical musician Paik was well placed to make his comment that sex was everywhere in art and literature and yet almost completely absent from the classical canon.

Why is sex, a predominant theme in art and literature, prohibited ONLY in music?

(For a start that shows the extreme limits of his knowledge of contemporary and pop culture: I think even a casual examination would have shown him that popular songs, jazz, blues, rock’n’roll, pop and rock music is OBSESSED with sex.)

So he set out to address this glaring error in a collaboration with classical cellist Charlotte Moorman which lasted for nearly thirty years. Basically, these involved getting Moorman to play the cello in various states of undress, topless, bottomless, totally nude, or with various objects taped onto her boobs, for example mirrors, or what looked like little display cases.

This was such a 60s idea it made me giggle. What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding, man? A big quote from Moorman is printed on the wall of her saying that, in the age of nuclear weapons and Vietnam, you couldn’t expect artists to make art like in the old days. She became known as the Topless Cellist.

Thus there are films of performances which involved Charlotte playing the cello nude, or with mirrors or even small TV monitors taped to her breasts, or playing a TV monitor as if it was a cello, or playing a man sitting in front of her as if he was a cello and, most impressively, climbing topless into a column of oil drums filled with water then climbing out again.

The idea that having women strip off, taking their clothes off or taping things to their boobs, would somehow revolutionise music or put the sex back into classical music is so laughable as to be sweet and quaint.

If there’s one thing that Charlotte Moorman is not, it’s sexy. She looks like a nice young lady who’s decided to take her clothes off to make a statement. But just taking your clothes off does not make you sexy, as anyone who’s been in a gym or swimming pool changing room and looked around knows: it just makes you someone who’s taken their clothes off, often enough a rather pitiable sight. Here she is, combining Paik’s two themes, playing a cello made of television sets.

Charlotte Moorman with TV Cello and TV Eyeglasses (1971) Peter Wenzel Collection

Joseph Beuys

Paik encountered the Zero Group in Dusseldorf in 1961, which included the eccentric German artist Joseph Beuys. They remained close friends and made various collaborations. One of the later ones is a long video of Beuys on stage somewhere, standing wearing his trademark hat and army flak jacket and howling howling howling like a coyote into a microphone.

This room contains a full-sized Mongolian yurt, because Paik felt very in touch with the Mongolian part of his heritage. It’s an impressive object, easily big enough to bend slightly and walk into. It was Paik’s contribution to the German pavilion at the 1993 Venice Biennale.

Mongolian tent by Nam June Paik (1993)

The Sistine Chapel

As mentioned above, the penultimate room contains a flickering flame with a camera pointing at it, and projected on the walls. But this pales into comparison with the elaborate scaffolding which projects a mashup of footage onto the walls and ceiling of the final room all to a deafening rock and blues and classical splice track.

The sound is impressive and the images are sort of immersive, but what really impresses is how much bloody scaffolding and structure it took to project these images. I wonder if the same effect could be achieved nowadays with a fraction of the equipment… as in the nearby exhibition of contemporary immersive artist, Olafur Eliasson. And if so, the thing is impressive less for its effects, than for indicating how laborious and heavy and complicated it was back in 1993, to achieve something which can be done with a few hidden projectors nowadays…

Installation view of Nam June Paik at Tate Modern. Photo by the author

Nothing dates faster than old TV

Well, OK, some things do, bread for example. Or pop music. But not much dates faster and more completely than televison. Watching TV clips of Richard Nixon or John Cage or Janis Joplin or hearing tracks by the Beatles from the 1960s conveys a deep psychological sense that we have stepped back in time not just a few decades, but back into what, is now, a different century – a time which is fast becoming incomprehensible in its political and artistic naivety and optimism

I really enjoyed the exhibition because of its quaint sense of being dated and old. I liked the quaint old bakelite TV sets Paik made his television robots out of, or the extremely ancient tape recorders on which he made his cutting edge music compilations in the 1960s.

But nothing dates faster than old visions of the future. Paik’s wall of video monitors is wonderfully redolent of the 1980s, of MTV and the TV generation. But the future would turn out not to be about walls of TV screens, but screens which are so small you can put them in your pocket or possibly be projected onto your glasses (still waiting for that to be perfected).

This is a beautifully assembled and laid out and clearly explained exhibition, and it explains why Paik was clearly one of the early international art superstars but – Tate’s promotional video includes the slogan THE FUTURE IS NOW. But this exhibition is all about THEN, and quite an outdated THEN at that. To me it ranged from the dated, to the very dated, to the really antique.

Some ancient robots and gizmos by Nam June Paik at Tate Modern.

A fascinating look at the world of a pioneer of TV art, or art for the TV age – but really bringing home the fact that that era, the TV era, is long gone, and we are well into a completely new era, of boundless new communication technologies, bringing with them new social ideas and issues, and new geopolitical threats, which have as yet been very little explored by artists.

Paik appears to have been the grand-daddy to the modern world of video art, a granddad whose pioneering work more or less ended around the same time as the analogue era, sometime in the mid-1990s. He was the great pioneer of analogue visual technology, a revered ancestor. Let’s tap the temple bell, and make a bow to his cheeky, funny, loud and inventive achievements.

Curators

  • Dr Sook-Kyung Lee, Senior Curator, International Art (Hyundai Tate Research Centre: Transnational), Tate
  • Rudolf Frieling, Curator of Media Arts, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
  • with Valentina Ravaglia (Tate) and Andrea Nitsche-Krupp (SFMOMA).


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Conclave by Robert Harris (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Factual research and conclave procedure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The set-up

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

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

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

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

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

Revelations

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

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

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

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

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

The plot

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

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

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

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

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

Spoilers

Two more revelations dominate the main body of the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two bombshells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clichés and clarity

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

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

Later on we read that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The car bombs

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

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

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

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

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

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


Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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