I have been reading Robert Harris’s novels. I enjoyed his latest, Munich, but also had a good time with Conclave, Dictator and Pompeii. Some time ago I read Ghost. Fatherland was serialized on television recently. Some of his books are set in real historical events. The imaginary context for others has a similar feel, involving people and places familiar to us. They have all required painstaking research, and we are left with the impression that the characters live in a world that is familiar to us, and that the events described could easily have happened.
In Harris’s historical fiction, the past comes alive by means of imagination and invention. He gives the reader a perspective from which to engage with history. Purists may complain that the distinction between fact and fiction is not always clear, but to my mind that doesn’t matter. Clearly, Harris interprets past events in ways that serve the interests of the story he wants to tell, but he has no interest in deliberate distortion or falsehood, and goes to great lengths to maintain a feeling of authenticity.
Hilary Mantel tells us that imagination is always involved in the telling of history. Subjectivity and interpretation is inevitable, and to present history as pure fact is naïve and misleading. Writers like Harris and Mantel do not pretend their books are anything other than fiction, but by writing well and treating their sources with respect, they make it possible for us to enter into the world of the past and think helpfully about what it means and what it can teach us.
Harris’s novels centre on the nature and use of political power. His imaginary characters, through whom the stories are told, are caught up in the political intrigues and power struggles of their day. Munich describes Neville Chamberlain’s attempt to avert or at least postpone war at his meeting with Hitler in 1938. We see the event through the eyes of civil servants Hugh Legat and Paul von Hartmann, caught up in this fateful encounter. The main focus of the story, ostensibly on their relationship, is actually more about the international power-play going on around them, and how their personal fortunes are tied up with that. The book carries us along like any good thriller, but also enables us to engage with the impact, risks and limitations of political power.
Dictator is about the political struggles of ancient Rome as the Republic fell and first Julius Caesar, then Octavian took power, seen through the experiences of the rhetorician and statesman Cicero and his secretary Tiro. Conclave concerns a different kind of power struggle as the Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church meet to appoint the next Pope. Pompeii, which gives a dramatic account of the eruption of Vesuvius and of a romantic relationship developing in its shadow, is also about the political ambitions of powerful people in the cities affected. In both Conclave and Pompeii, the action is told through the experiences of a main character struggling to navigate through the political complexities in which he finds himself.
Harris depicts the political world in which his characters are set as a dark place of intrigue, deception, personal ambition and the threat and use of force. They face risks and try and avoid disaster at the hands of the powerful people around them. The sub-plot (or is it the main one?) is the nature of political power itself. Does Harris’s Machiavellian depiction relate to politics in general? His novels cover a variety of scenarios, including Nazi Germany, ancient Rome, the Roman Catholic Church and contemporary international relations. The dramatic value of presenting politics in this way is obvious, and perhaps this is all that matters, but it nevertheless raises questions about politics more widely.
Popular perception seems to suggest that politics is by nature as Harris portrays it. Distrust and cynicism are widespread. It might be less appealing to novelists, but it should be possible to see politics more as a matter of persuading others through reasoned argument and debate, where politicians are prepared to change their minds in the light of evidence and reason, and not condemned for doing so, where Parliament is a place of genuine debate and compromise rather than a struggle for power between two fighting factions, and where the desire for personal status and power takes second place to the search for the common good. At a time when democracy faces severe challenges, Harris’s books are not only a good read, but also a stimulus to thinking about the nature of politics and the risks we all face when the hunger for power becomes dominant.
Peter Shepherd (October 2017)