Robert Harris Pompeii Essay

In his terrific speculative thriller, Fatherland (see Orrin's review), Robert Harris plopped us down in the middle of an alternate reality where Nazi Germany had won a stalemate with the United States and Hitler was about to celebrate his 75th birthday in 1964.  The book was plausible and very exciting, but best of all it confronted readers with the similarity between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and implicitly asked why the west fought one and aided the other.  Now, in Enigma, he shows that he can work equally effectively against the backdrop of actual events and still broach big ideas.

It's February, 1943 and Tom Jericho, a brilliant young Cambridge mathematician and protégé of Alan Turing, has already suffered one nervous breakdown under the pressure of working to break secret Nazi codes.   Now he's summoned back to Bletchley Park because the U-boat code, known as Shark, which was previously decrypted due to an epiphany of his, has suddenly been changed just as an enormous supply convoy from America is setting out for Britain.  Despite his delicate mental state, it's felt that he'll be valuable just for his totemic value and to reassure the higher-ups that all the best men are working on the problem.

Complicating matters is the disappearance of Jericho's ex-girlfriend, Claire Romilly, who it appears may have tipped off the Germans that their codes had been cracked.  At any rate, some must have betrayed this vital secret, and, even as the supply convoy sails towards one of the biggest U-boat wolfpacks ever assembled, Jericho sets out to discover who the traitor is and where Claire has disappeared too.

The author too manages a difficult feat as he balances the mystery plot with healthy dollops of WWII history and cryptographic technique.  Jericho's quest for Claire is exciting enough, but it's the details about the Enigma machines, which produced what the Nazis believed to be an unbreakable codes, and the British success in breaking them anyway, which really make for fascinating reading.  Then, as if that weren't enough, when Harris introduces the reason that someone at Bletchley would assist the Nazis, he returns to some of the troubling moral and geopolitical questions that he first raised in Fatherland.  It all makes for a thoughtful thriller that entertains, enlightens and provokes the reader.

by Robert Harris
Hutchinson £17.99, pp342

Pompeii is set in a much warmer climate than Nazi Berlin, but it has one thing in common with Robert Harris's best-selling Fatherland. It borrows, for its momentum, the conventions of the police thriller, squeezing a steadily accelerating narrative into a four-day time frame. As every reader knows, the plot is going to end with one of the biggest bangs in history.

This is a difficult story to narrate: we already know a lot about the last days of Pompeii, and that everything, finally, will be overwhelmed by disaster. So, how to engage the reader's interest before the lava starts to flow? Much of Harris's skill lies in disturbing the splendidly drawn luxury of Neapolitan life with premonitory intimations of catastrophe.

At first, it seems Harris has transported his readers to Robert Graves country: with Corax the nasty overseer, Marcus Attilius the plain-spoken Roman engineer, and impressive circumstantial detail. But as he finds his balance in this unfamiliar terrain, it is clear Harris is fascinated by the geophysics of volcanic eruptions.

So the Aqua Augusta, Attilius's responsibility, becomes almost another character, linking Pompeii to the magnificence of ancient Rome, which in turn becomes a mirror to the awesome contemporary extravagance of the US.

The story of Attilius and his unfulfilled love for Corelia is the human dimension of Pompeii, but the lovers get overwhelmed by the seismic drama unfolding around them. Almost as affecting are the incidental portraits: the engineer's relationship, for instance, with Pliny the Elder, the Roman scholar and naval commander to whom Attilius promises he will repair the aqueduct.

The death of Pliny is a poignant moment in a novel that, the big disaster aside, is purposely light on emotion. By the end, the protagonists of an interrupted plot are simply smothered by natural forces.

In a nice touch of ambiguity, Harris brings the revels to a close with the legend of the man and the woman seen emerging from a subterranean refuge, after the eruption is over, covered in ash, like dazed survivors of 9/11. So there is future life for the Romans, and his readers must hope that Robert Harris will want to return soon to the classical warm south, where he seems so much at home.

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