Monday, May 3, 2010

Presenting the past

In Conspirata: A Novel of Ancient Rome, Robert Harris gives us a political leader a bit like Barack Obama -- and a warning about his limits

The following review was published last night on the home page of the History News Network website.

It is an axiom of the historical profession that the great danger and temptation in writing about the past is lapsing into a form of anachronism known as "presentism," i.e. retroactively projecting the issues and opinions of the present upon the past. It is neither entirely possible nor entirely desirable to entirely to escape presentism, entirely, of course; without it history lacks relevance. But a history that fails to at least attempt to respect what is sometimes called "the pastness of the past" violates the spirit of the enterprise, feels forced, and dates quickly.

For the historical novelist, by contrast, the calculus works in the reverse direction. The imperative of the novel is to entertain, and the prerequisite of entertainment is a feeling that what is being depicted somehow captures a truth about life as it is lived. Historical verisimilitude is admired and welcome to the degree it does not get in the way of the story, which is to say that it becomes an end in its own right. Navigating between the long-established conventions of academic history and the even more venerable ones of literary criticism, historical novelists rarely get much in the way of respect from either. (One recent exception is Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, reviewed recently at HNN.) But success when it comes is often measured by another means: sales.

In the eighteen years since his marvelous counter-factual thriller Fatherland, a murder mystery set in a 1964 in which the Nazis had triumphed in World War II, British journalist-turned-novelist Robert Harris has had a hugely successful career spinning page-turning yarns with an often impressive degree of nuanced of historical detail. He followed it three years later with Enigma, a fictionalized account of the cryptographic race to break Nazi code, and then in 1998 with Archangel, an almost gothic novel of Soviet politics that turned on the possibility that Josef Stalin had an heir.

In more recent years, Harris has widened his lens; his last novel, The Ghost, was recently made into a well-regarded novel about a distinctly Tony Blair-ish prime minister colluding with corrupt Americans in launching war on Iraq. (Fatherland and Enigma were also made into movies; Archangel became a BBC miniseries.) But most of his focus in the last decade has been ancient Rome. His 2003 novel Pompeii -- very possibly the best of the Harris oeuvre -- managed to make the engineering of Roman aqueducts an extraordinarily vivid context for the explosion of Mount Vesivius in 79 CE. In Imperium (2006), Harris moves away from inserting fictional scenarios into historical events by instead tracking, largely faithfully, the rise of Marcus Tullius Cicero, the golden-tongued "New Man" who emerged from obscurity to become consul of the Republic (think of it as the Roman Dream.) Harris makes the striking choice of narrating the story from the point of view of Cicero's real-life slave and amanuensis Tiro, author of a history referred to by Plutarch and others that has since been lost. If Imperium is less vivid that some of Harris's earlier fiction, it nevertheless maintains the high standard his work has established as an almost guiltless pleasure for serious students of history.

Harris has apparently conceived his telling of Cicero's story as a trilogy, the second installment of which, Conspirata, has just been published (In the UK, the book was titled Lustrum, which translates to a period of five years.) Conspirata, which can easily by digested without its prequel, follows Cicero's consulship -- dominated by a series of intrigues we have come to know as the Catalina Conspiracy -- and then his post-consular career as characters who had heretofore been minor, Gneus Pompey and Julius Caesar, come to dominate and threaten the Republican government. The next volume will presumably trace the confrontation between the two, Caesar's triumph, the destruction of the republic and establishment of the Roman Empire.

Harris's Cicero is a consummate political professional, one whose success rests on his talent as a multi-tasker. As he explains to his far more doctrinaire Senate colleague, Cato, "This is the business of politics -- to surmount each challenge as it appears and be ready to deal with the next. The best analogy for statesmanship, in my opinion, is navigation -- now you use the oars and now you sail, now you run before a wind and now you take into it, now you catch a tide and now you ride it out. All this takes years of skill and study, not some manual written by Zeno." There's something downright Clintonian -- and Obamaesque -- in this affirmation of a pragmatism rooted in the public good.

The analogy strengthens when one considers the meritocratic (and legal) basis of Cicero's rise; indeed, his lack of family connections and military experience are occasionally liabilities that he experiences acutely. Tiro periodically makes clear that his admiration for his fallible master's courage is not a function of his fearlessness, but rather a willingness to face threats and endure terror. Such characteristics appear to be in marked contrast with challengers like Caesar, who, as in the recent HBO series Rome, comes across as intelligent, implacable and ruthless. Such men can never be defeated, only deferred. "We'll just have to outwit him again," Cicero says of Caesar as he tries to convince a colleague to tolerate, for tactical reasons, his latest outrage. "And we'll have to go on doing it for as long as is necessary."

But political power is an unstable and temporary phenomenon, and not even Cicero can maintain republican equilibrium indefinitely. Harris's desire to drive home this point makes Conspirata a longer book than it otherwise would be (and, arguably, should be). The first half, covering Cicero's consulship, is really a novel in its own right. The second not only lacks this sense of narrative cohesion, but gradually displaces its protagonist from centrality. The book moves from a study of the nature of power to a depiction to the experience of powerlessness. This is more politically edifying than aesthetically satisfying, though Harris once again turns to the device of murder to link the two pieces and stitch them together.

It is perhaps not surprising that a man who began his career immersed in the horrors of the mid-twentieth century totalitarian state would be centripetally drawn to it even when he shifts his gaze millennia away.  In any case, Harris's larger point remains clear and hard to ignore. Put not your trust in Princes -- or republicans, or Democrats. Societies come and go. But the hunger for power, and thirst for blood, is unquenchable.