“We are an ark … surrounded by a rising flood of discord.”
― Robert Harris, Conclave
The Catholic Church doesn’t nearly have as much influence over the affairs of the world as it used to, but nevertheless they remain a powerful presence with over two billion adherents around the world. For a lot of us, what goes on in the Vatican feels more symbolic than anything else, with the pope just being an exemplary figure of virtue at most.
This kind of viewpoint certainly shouldn’t come as a surprise seeing as how the whole institute feels mysterious and secretive to an outside observer. Behind their closed doors, a lot more happens than we could have anticipated and Robert Harris takes us into the heart of it all with his latest novel, Conclave.
An Intrigue from Thin Air
I won’t spend a whole lot of time discussing the story because the premise is actually quite simple: the pope is dead and 118 cardinals have to elect the next one. To do so they are sequestered together from the rest of the world for the duration it will take them to reach the decision. The main character for us to follow is the Cardinal Lomeli, the Dean of the College of Cardinals and the one in charge of overseeing the holiest of all elections.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: how can a story about a bunch of old men electing another old man be interesting in any way?
Well, to begin with we are dropped in a rather unfamiliar setting that quickly creates some tension and interest: the cardinals are all truly locked away from the outside world, even denied access to technology and any literature that isn’t a holy scripture.
They are effectively reverting to the old ways and the sense of isolation that creates stays with you throughout the whole read and at times makes you feel safe and cozy, and at others uneasy and claustrophobic. Harris is usually very effective at using the setting to convey something to the reader, and that remains just as true for this novel.
The Papal Plot Thickens
That was only the beginning though, as the isolation is just a step towards another goal for those cardinals: to get as close to God as possible and hear his guidance as to who the next pope ought to be for the good of the whole world.
This is where things get really interesting as Harris introduces us to the various rituals and meditations these cardinals undergo, the spiritual journeys they take in the small hope of elevating themselves to a higher level of enlightenment.
Rest assured, it’s all quite down-to-Earth without any arcane demons or the other supernatural tripe that always seems to get associated with religious rituals. On the contrary, they are generally on the simple side but still quite fascinating on how they influence the cardinals in their reflections.
Harris doesn’t spare any ink in describing it all in sharp and vivid details, depicting a curious and educative portrait of what the Church’s rituals really look like and their true intent.
Meet the Unusual Cardinals
So we’ve talked about those 118 cardinals for a bit now, but what exactly do we make of them? As you’ve surely guessed from the general attitude I’ve had towards Conclave so far, they are definitely not a bunch of boring old men wearing unnecessarily fancy robes, taking naps and playing Bingo while deciding which of them will get to put on the world’s most impractical hat.
No, they are indeed 118 different individuals belonging to many different groups. There are the expectantly virtuous ones who truly want to get close to God and make the right decision. There are others who have given in to the appeal of power and want the post of Pope for themselves. Some of the cardinals are facing their own internal struggles between what they believe and observe, what they were taught and what they know.
There are even traditionalists and modernists at odds with each other, all with different ideas on how the Church ought to run. Through them, Harris also brings to light many of the unseen schisms that divide the people in this faith.
Though in Conclave we don’t get to meet every single one of them up close, the ones we do acquaint ourselves with are always fully-fleshed out people that are much more than just channels for the expression of ideas and viewpoints.
They can be analyzed as real people, and the more we know about the demons and hopes they grapple with, the more they seem like regular human beings rather than drones belonging to a religious conglomerate.
This is especially noticeable with our extremely reliable narrator who constantly cross-examines himself and reflects on the disparities between what his faith requires and what his human mind desires.
His meditations give you a lot to think about, no matter whether you’re a religious person or not; there is true depth to what he says, and much of it calls for you to think and come to your own conclusions.
I suspect that Conclave is the kind of mystery you can shelf for a while only to open it up again and interpret everything in a completely different light based on our ever-shifting perception of life.
All of the Book’s Treasures
Now, as far as the entertainment factor goes, I will reassure you that there is indeed a whole lot of tension and drama here, with the election being more of a race and Cardinal Lomeli often being called upon to investigate suspicious happenings.
The shadow of doubt creeps up as to the real motivations and desires of certain characters, and ultimately you never know who you can really trust. There are a few big twists here and there, and the finale will come either as a great shock (as it did for me) or a real kick to the face if you’re good at spotting foreshadowing clues. Either way, it won’t let you down.
Finally, I’d like to bring some attention to the quality of Harris’ writing. Before becoming a novelist he worked as a political journalist, and that is quite apparent in his style. There are no superfluous flowery descriptions, with every sentence being concise and informative.
He knows when to hold back and when to give more details, and what’s more he does it all in a very organic and entertaining fashion; as much as he wants to teach us about the captivating internal world of the Catholic Church, he remembers that Conclave is a novel, with the primary goal being to entertain the reader. He understands that we want to be surprised, feel strong emotions, experience the unexpected, and that ultimately, we need that drama.
In summary, Conclave is a multifaceted novel that offers an engrossing window into the private domain of the Catholic Church as much as it provides an emotional and compelling story populated by memorable and profound characters with a lot of food for thought to share.
Doubtlessly, it’s a book worth adding to your collection sooner rather than later.
Robert Harris is an English novelist who used to work as a journalist as well as a television reporter for the BBC.
Though Harris began with works of non-fiction, he has branched off into historical fiction as well as contemporary history, with Fatherland being one of his most recognized novels.