I’ve been away from this blog for some time, sorting through issues regarding publishing, writing, teaching and what not. However, I’m halfway through this very civilized, intelligent and cultured mystery = part religious investigation ala Dan Brown, elevated for a more sophisticated readership, part Peter Mayle, with wonderful descriptions of food and wine from the Languedoc area of France, and part historical romance, with characters crossing boundaries of time via reincarnation – and rediscovering lost loves. It’s quite intriguing, but definitely for a very cultured readership. Very few thrills and spills, but many subtle pleasures. I look forward to reviewing this book in depth in the near future.
I’ve just finished reading Robert Harris’ very stylish, sophisticated thriller, Conclave, the story of the struggle to elect the next pope in the post-Francis era. The time period is 2018. I have to say I was quite impressed on many levels. The author exhibits a superb understanding of internal Church politics, no simple matter, and the difficulty of juggling so many conflicting factions in the RMC. He actually succeeds in making this strange, secret world comprehensible. I’ve read quite a few of this author’s previous works and didn’t expect this level of expertise and insight. Nor did I expect such spiritual insight, though given the maturity of his work in such novels as The Ghost Writer, perhaps I shouldn’t have been completely surprised. Is Harris himself a Catholic, albeit a postmodern one?
All the major issues are handled adroitly through carefully drawn characters (change versus tradition, gays, women, divorced, the preferential option for the poor), from the brilliant, liberal ‘periti’ Cardinal Berlini to the fiercely homophobic African Cardinal, Adeyemi, who believes that all ‘homosexuals should be in jail on this earth and rot in hell for eternity.’ Adeyemi is a major player in the politicking for the papacy, but he has a dark secret to hide. So do several other leading contenders for the papal throne and therein lies the suspense in this very balanced and mature thriller. There is none of the silliness and sensationalism of a Dan Brown here (think Angels and Demons – which also deals with a papal conclave). The story is balanced, complex, and gripping and makes an arcane, peculiar, highly secretive world humanly comprehensible. Because looked at from the outside, the college of Cardinals – processing into the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel to engage in a centuries old ritual of election – is bizarre in the extreme to any ordinary post-modern Christian.
Herein lies the benefit of Ron Howard’s quite dazzling film adaptation of Angels & Demons – the sight of these elderly scarlet gentlemen processing in is beyond the weird. First of all because they are all male (and seem to think there is nothing peculiar about this), secondly those costumes, and thirdly all that color enveloping these tottering aged gentlemen. What is this all about a secularist observer wonders, and how could anyone take it seriously. And in what way could it possibly be relevant to the modern world. Harris has succeeded in humanizing the whole affair from an enlightened point of view, and that is much appreciated by this reader here. He makes us understand – particularly the dilemma – and the anguish – of open minded, mature clerics who love the Church and are struggling against such insurmountable odds to move it forward.
The first half of the book is taken up with a detailed description of the mechanics of any conclave and may prove daunting – if not boring – to any non-Catholic. However, Harris uses this mechanism to develop character, especially the character of the major players. Chief among them is the dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Lomeli, who is a genuine man of prayer, and a person of unshakeable rectitude and conscience. This characterization is what stunned me. Robert Harris has succeeded in imaginatively expressing Lomeli’s interior states of prayer, the darkness and the light, the surges of peace and interior conviction, followed by moments of doubt when “God” seems to be absent. The ebb and flow of the interior life. This is a poor depiction on my part of a very subtle and profound piece of characterization, and it led me to the question: is this Harris’ own experience, is he also a man of genuine interior experience, knowledgeable in the ways of the spiritual life (whether Christian, Buddhist, Muslim or-) . Or – as I suspect – did he have help in writing this book from prayerful, spiritual consultants, because some very high up individuals offered their input.
This spiritual dimension is what sets this book off from every other thriller I have ever read about Vatican scandals, corruption and intrigue. Finally, an author with genuine insight into the life of the spirit, without which all of this ceremony and ritual make no sense. True, the prayerful individuals in this story seem to be in the minority – but they are there and they drive the narrative, and that is what makes all the difference.
Once past the half way mark, the thriller takes off with a number of interconnected plots and scandals, and the book becomes gripping and intense. . The ending is a slam-bang surprise that finally reveals the author’s theological hand – exactly where he is situated on the left-liberal spectrum. Some readers have expressed their disbelief at the surprise shock of the ending, but it seemed plausible enough for me. This is partly because I have lived in Asia for some thirty years (no spoiler here) and am familiar with the ethnicity of the character who figures in the surprise ending. Keep that in mind, any readers who decide to take this on.
A class act all the way, the most mature Vatican thriller I have ever read, intriguing, informative and – a rarity – genuinely inspiring.
The next book I’ve chosen to review formally is In Another LIfe by Julie Christine Johnson. The novel is a mystical romantic historical murder mystery (there’s a mouthful) that spans 800 years in time and uses the device of reincarnation to link lives across the generations. The book focuses on the persecution of the Cathar sect in Southern France by the dominant Roman Catholic Church in the 12th century and features such luminaries as St. Dominic and Pope Innocent III. I found this gem at Book Club Reading List and it peaked my interest because I’m currently reading Hannah Green’s exquisite masterpiece, Little Saint, which also explores the religious culture of Southern France in the Languedoc region. What a perfect complement, I thought, for a dual review.
Told in dual past and present-day narration, In Another Life is the story of Lia Carrer, a broken hearted historian who becomes entangled in the echoes of an ancient murder.Lia Carrer has finally decided to return to southwestern France determined to rebuild her life after the death of her husband. But instead of finding solace in Languedoc’s quiet hills and medieval ruins, she’s captivated by three enigmatic souls: a photographer, who extends an opportunity to help restart her career; a winemaker, who offers the chance to rebuild her heart; and a priest, who reveals the truth of her new friends’ pasts—and his own. What Lia learns sends her into an emotional tailspin, for each of these men is much more than what he seems, and their unbelievable stories may be linked to her own devastating loss.In Another Life is steeped in the rich history and romantic landscape of rural France, intertwined with Lia’s modern quest to uncover the truth of an ancient murder and free a man haunted by ghosts from his past, resulting in a suspenseful journey that reminds Lia that the dead may not be as far from us as we think.
When you’re a protestor, the color of your skin is all that matters.
Yes, there is a cruel, stupid irony about living in a country when, on the same day, a bunch of gun-toting rubes who have less understanding of the Constitution than a wombat does of nuclear fusion get acquitted after an armed takeover of federal property in Oregon while, half a country away, peaceful protesters doing nothing but praying on land to which they have a right guaranteed by treaty get rousted, roughed up, and hauled away by a militarized police force acting largely at the behest of a private company. For those of you who are sorry you missed the last Gilded Age, hang in there. You’re going to get your wish fairly soon.
Charles Pierce commenting in Esquire on the discrepancy between the acquittal of the armed protestors in Oregon and this week’s police attacks on the peaceful activists protesting the North Dakota pipeline.