According to Wikipedia, “Thrillers are characterized and defined by the moods they elicit, giving viewers heightened feelings of suspense, excitement, surprise, anticipation and anxiety.” All of these are present in the reader’s reaction to the novel Conclave. The power of God, the ambition of men by Robert Harris (Random House, 2016).
How exactly is a Pope elected? Should he be Italian or not, white or not, traditionalist or progressive? What are the traditions and rules the cardinals have to adhere to? What politicking goes on while in conclave (i.e. locked behind closed doors)? What is the balance between God’s will and the cardinals’ intentions? What are the unpredictable elements in such a closed environment? These are the questions answered in this fast-paced, well-researched fictional narrative. The setting is the Sistine Chapel and surrounding buildings in the Vatican, the characters are mostly the cardinals entrusted in the election of the pope, the plot revolves around the actual voting, but there are twists and turns which have to do with the personal characteristics of the cardinals (those most predicted to become the Pope, as well as those least suspected). Political context (manifestations, terrorist bombings) frame the narrative. The time in which the actions take place is perhaps near to our future, maybe just past the current papacy of Pope Francis or the one after him. The omniscient narrator offers his descriptions of the action through the character of Cardinal Lomeli, Dean of the College of Cardinals: a slow, slightly infirm, but intelligent and honest man who has been in the Vatican for a long time and is quick to avoid scandals and steer the media (in southern Italian dialects, meli means “honey”).
Clearly, there is suspense and excitement when the election of a new Pope is happening, by virtue of the expectations, desires, prayers of all Christians and not, and by the weight of the decision put on the shoulders of the 118 men who have to come to a majority agreement. The anxiety is evident in the initial vote cast where any cardinal’s name can be put on the ballot. These common and expected elements could make an interesting thriller. But Harris goes beyond the regular plot. At least two surprising elements turn up which make for a definitely interesting, though-provoking, and above- average narration, because they allow for flight of the imagination outside of the confines of the conclave thriller.
1) The first surprise element deals with a blemish on the character of a very strong papacy candidate, the Nigerian Cardinal Joshua Adeyemi. While very young, and while already in the clergy, he fathered a son. This news comes as a complete bombshell, brought about by the seemingly chance visit from the mother, a Nigerian nun, a sister with the Daughters of the Charity of St. Vincent De Paul. Lomeli has to deal with it. Of course, the affair is hushed but Adeyemi has no chance of winning through skillful re-direction of votes. Thus, the chance of the first black pope is lost.
However, the bigger question is whether absolutely no one human being is beyond reproach. And, conversely, if one is a sinner, one cannot be a great, admired, idolized musician/ politician/ journalist/ actor/ instructor/ etc. etc. etc., and of course, pope. It seems that especially nowadays “sins” such as sexual predation, rape, violence against women and men, lying, cheating, and other illegal behaviours do not constitute grounds for firing presidents, politicians, actors, etc., nor these “fallible” people fall from grace of the general public. Are cardinals then different than other humans?
2) The second surprise has to do with the gender and sex of the pope. While there is the myth of Joanna, seemingly the only female pope in history, clearly the sex and gender of the pope are not matters of choice or discussion. The pope is a male and is a man. And yet, Harris suggests that a woman can rise to the top of the Catholic hierarchy. But there is a physiological circumstance: she has to have a medical condition, a deformity (fusion of the labia majora and minora), and therefore she is not a real, complete woman. The pope then can be a person who is less than a woman. It also helps that Benites (she) is a Philippino, therefore the long-awaited Third World pope.
The novel’s content, with its focus on the election of the pope, has the opportunity to touch upon other topics as well, such as the question of wealth and economic dealings of the Catholic church, the sexual misconduct of its clergy, losing faith in the Church, the “hand of God” in human affairs. Harris also uses striking similes and metaphors to bring the reader into what it must feel like being sequestered from the world. For ex., “…the reporters and photographers started calling out to the cardinals, like tourists at a zoo trying to persuade the animals to come closer” (p. 20); “Behind the thick bulletproof glass, priests and security men moved silently in the yellowish glow like creatures in an aquarium” (p. 47), “We are an Ark, he thought, surrounded by a rising flood of discord.” (p. 34), etc. Memorable are also depictions of some characters: “Cardinal Goffredo Tedesco was the least clerical-looking cleric Lomeli had ever seen. If you showed a picture to someone who didn’t know him, they would say he was a retired butcher, perhaps, or a bus driver” (p. 45); a Canadian, Cardinal Tremblay, “looked like a cleric in some Hollywood romantic movie: Spencer Tracy came to mind.” (p. 140).
In conclusion, Harris has created a fast-paced, suspenseful drama, peopled with quirky and interesting characters, unpredictable events, and Catholic pomp and circumstance. He has also highlighted two timely topics with which society is still grappling, giving them, however, still slightly traditional answers. A worth-while read.