“Conclave” by Robert Harris – “As wise as serpents, innocent as doves….. as if there were no women in the world”

This is my review of Conclave by Robert Harris.

In his role as Dean, steeped in the rituals and politics of the Vatican, which may well be the cause of his recent crisis of faith, Cardinal Lomeli is peeved when the Pope refuses his request to retreat to a religious order, insisting that he is needed as a manager. Yet when the old man unexpectedly dies, all Lomeli’s skills are needed to ensure that a suitable successor is found out of the clearly far from perfect candidates. Inevitably, Lomeli’s diligence in this respect may give the impression that he is clearing the way for his own election. Since he is a decent man of integrity, would this be such a bad result? Could he be tempted by the prospect of power, or is the weight of responsibility and loss of freedom to roam through the streets unrecognised and browse in a bookshop too high a price to pay?

This psychological drama which I felt compelled to finish in a single day can be read on two levels: a simple question of who will win out in a fiercely fought competition to gain the coveted yet also daunting position of Pope, or a deeper analysis of the condition and influence of the Catholic church in the modern world. Robert Harris seems to me to be making a stinging indictment of the excessive wealth and privilege of the Vatican hierarchy and its ostrich-like divorce from real life. I was struck by the irony of the meek nuns who serve the meals, clean the rooms and provide secretarial support for the male staff and cardinals who take it all as their due.

There is no need for belief to be intrigued by the survival of the medieval ritual of locking 118 cardinals in the Sistine Chapel, segregating them from the rest of the world in the Vatican, until they have chosen one of their number by ballot to become the next Pope. Continuing his preoccupation with the pursuit and exercise of power, possibly offending some Catholics in the process, Robert Harris, has fleshed out the arcane process by his portrayal of the cardinals scheming like a typical bunch of secular politicians in the desire to advance the cause of a favoured candidate, or obtain the role in person.

All too human in their personal flaws, the main protagonists represent a range of characters from different continents and cultures: from the self-styled man of the people to the self-effacing intellectual; the socially progressive and tolerant to highly conservative. The most unworldly and principled may resort to dubious means for a good end or at least to avert what they regard as a bad one. An ambitious liberal may manipulate matters to a point bordering on the criminal, while a wheeler-dealer may destroy his chances through a sudden insistence on what he really believes.

How essential is it for the Church to maintain its unity against growing external pressures from say, atheism, secular moves for social equality, or an ever more militant Islam? Is this unity even feasible, when the ground-breaking step of electing an African cardinal as Pope would mean having a leader intolerant of homosexuality?

The detailed coverage of the prayers and rituals which Robert Harris has researched so thoroughly, the repetition of the procedure of casting the ballot until it is possible to ignite the chemicals which will give the pure white smoke of a result, has proved too dry for some readers. Admittedly, the lists of cardinals and their lengthy titles may have been overdone, but all this creates the necessary context for the drama.

I understand why some have found the ending implausible and somewhat abrupt, but on reflection I decided it was quite a clever, ironical twist, leaving matters open and the reader with further food for thought.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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