Conclave, by Robert Harris

Nine stars

Harris returns with another remarkable novel of historical fiction, turning his narrative to the present as explores a highly pious and political event. THE POPE IS DEAD! This startling piece of news makes its way to the ears of Cardinal Lomeli in the early hours one October morning. Heading to the apartment of the Holy Father, Lomeli is met by a small group, who confirm the news and begin the proscribed acts required when the Vatican is without its Supreme Pontiff. As the news becomes public, Lomeli is tasked with preparing for the highly publicised, though extremely secret, event known as The Conclave. As Dean of the College of Cardinals, Lomeli must organise the election of the next pope, which is only a few weeks hence. During the intervening time, the funeral must take place and Lomeli handles sundry pieces of Vatican business ahead of the papal election. As cardinals arrive from all over the world to cast their ballots, Lomeli wrestles with a few issues surrounding cardinal electors, including one Cardinal Tremblay, the Vatican Camerlengo, its temporary leader, a French-Canadian who was apparently removed from all positions the night before the pope died. As if this were not enough to occupy his time, as 117 confirmed cardinals have arrived for Conclave, a mysterious figure appears and makes he known that he, too, is a cardinal eligible to choose the next pontiff. Vincent Benitez, Archbishop of Baghdad, was appointed a cardinal in pectore, ‘in the heart’, and was known only to the recently deceased pope and God. Seeing the documentation and meditating on this oddity, Lomeli grants Benitez access to the Conclave and the preliminary events commence. Even before being sequestered into the Sistene Chapel, there are a few front runners for the position, all of whom seek to solidify their supporters before the voting begins. Tremblay stands firm that he can speak best for the Catholic Church, being a North American without being from America; Bellini, the current Secretary of State from Italy, served the last pope well on the world scene and can continue with his liberal outlook in directing the Church; Adeyemi, a cardinal from Nigeria, seeks to lead the way for the Third World and present the Church with its first black pontiff; and Tedesco, Italian and pining for a return of a fellow countryman to the Throne of St. Peter, who will also remove the impediments that Vatican II ushered in, keeping the faith pure and the language of the Church equally so. These four men vie as best they can before cardinals place their minds in God’s hand to help them cast their ballots. Once the Conclave begins, Lomeli must continue running it by the strict orders laid out in the Apostolic Constitution, which includes specific rules and processes. While the outside world is left to wonder what is going on, receiving only the most minimal of news in the form of curling smoke from a chimney, inside the Sistene Chapel there is much politicking. Lomeli uncovers great issues with two of the front runners, whose power dwindles as the Dean uses the Constitution to keep the Conclave on track. As the ballots mount, surprises continue, and not even an act of terror can stop the cardinals from choosing the new Catholic leader. Voting continues until one cardinal receives the proscribed two-thirds of the votes, which seems almost impossible until impassioned speeches before the eighth ballot. Lomeli is on the verge of witnessing history, but even then, there is one more surprise that no one saw coming. The Catholic Church is set to change dramatically, though its congregants cannot know how deeply divided its upper echelon has become over a single decision. From the embers of the deceased pope comes the cry the world has waited to hear: Habemus papam (We have a Pope)! A thought-provoking thriller that keeps readers glued to the page until the very last sentence.

This is a brilliant piece that pulls together the most political event in the world, far exceeding the election of an American president (and this is from a non-Catholic). The intricacies and nuances with a Conclave are enough to drive any historian or political fanatic mad, but to create one in a piece of fiction is surely an even more onerous task. Harris develops a wonderful collection of characters to serve as cardinals and support staff, though he promises in his author’s note that none are based on actual people. Using these multi-dimensional individuals, the narrative moves in interesting ways to enrich the story the further it advances, using Lomeli as the central protagonist throughout. From what I know of Conclaves and the rules surrounding them, Harris has used everything at his disposal to create momentum in the most interesting of spots without dragging things out too much or weighing the story down in a constitutional miasma. Tackling the fallibility of each cardinal, the struggle between man and God, the views of the outside world, and the highly political event that is electing the Supreme Pontiff, Harris delivers a thriller that far exceeds any expectations and does so in under three hundred pages. Weaving dramatic interactions into the storyline, the reader is left to cheer on their favourite cardinal, in hopes that he will obtain the magic eighty votes. I cannot think of a novel that churned up so much political excitement in me or so flawlessly depicts this highly secretive event as a Conclave. Readers of all political and religious stripes will surely enjoy devouring this piece, which reads so fluidly and is timeless in its presentation that it could be read over the years without losing any lustre.

Kudos, Mr. Harris for entertaining, educating, and keeping the reader guessing until the very end. I cannot think of a better novel to read to contrast and compare with the circus of the upcoming US General Election.