A revelation in Conclave


“Then I saw thrones, and those seated on them were given authority to judge” – Revelation 20:4

I’d never even considered Robert Harris before, at least not his books anyway – though do consider his Twitter account. Perhaps it was some unfulfilled sense of stubborn pretentiousness that I’d not want to be seen reading him, or a plain misunderstanding of what he wrote about exactly. Whatever the reason, I think I was missing out. As Ian Samson wrote in the Guardian last year, “Orwell in his notes for an article about Evelyn Waugh famously noted, “Conclude. Waugh abt as good a novelist as one can be (ie as novelists go today) while holding untenable opinions.” Harris is no Waugh – he is too far left – but otherwise the comparison holds.”

Conclave as a Catholic institution is something I have – or had – a somewhat strained understanding of from seeing both the election of Ratzinger and Francis. I knew the routines of the smoke and the votes, the crowds of pilgrims, and I also knew a bit from Dan Brown’s effort, too. Sansom concedes some readers may be “bored by [the] dutiful recounting of facts” in Harris’s novel, but I for one loved it – perhaps because I hadn’t thought to expect it. I fail to understand anybody who would be enticed by the premise of the book and yet bored by the very history that makes the story so compelling.

When I look online for evidence of Harris’s religious beliefs, the information is scarce – one or two conversations in forums seem to be bothered about how likely he is to burn in Hell, but aside from that, few are taking much interest. I’m glad, in a way. I’d rather not know the believing mind behind any work of fiction, I think, lest it force upon me some prescribed idea of their motives in writing the thing in the first place. But the inquisitive side of me pushed me look into it in the first place, and why? Because religion, and more importantly, religious organisations, have such long and complex histories, our relationship to them inevitably begins to seem just as interesting once you give it some thought. There are lot more stories to be told about these worldwide organised groups of believers (and fakers, for that matter), I hope writers such as Harris keep writing the novels for them.

Apologetically described as ‘unputdownable’, Conclave served its purpose neatly, delivering excitement and intrigue in unpredictable ways. I never thought I’d care about a religious election described in such hourly detail, if I’m honest. But by the end, behind that curtain separating the new Pope from the masses in the square, I realised how deeply I was involved in the the characters, how feverishly I’d spent my afternoon turning page after page, and how much I suspected them all of no good. That’s a great story in my mind, something that keeps going once you’ve hit the Acknowledgements and dutifully skimmed through them.

So, will you hear my confession? Forgive me, I thought it mattered who you read and who sees you reading it, but rarely in the past few years have I enjoyed a novel as much as this. I’ll keep that in mind for the future.