- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 22, 2004

To see Pompeii today is to slip back 2,000 years into the lives of the Romans who resided in the elegant villas of the first century A.D. — floors still covered in beautiful mosaics, the remains of gardens and pools, utensils left in mid-use. The mountain spewed its storm of gray ash and suffocated everything in its path to the sea, leaving a moment in time transfixed forever.

In his novel Pompeii (Random House, $24.95, 248 pages), British author Robert Harris takes his readers on a four-day journey into the heart of a living Pompeii and the cities around the Bay of Naples (ancient Neapolis) from Aug. 22 to Aug. 25, A.D. 79, from the beginnings of the first ground tremors to the mighty eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

Each chapter begins with a quote from a scientific study explaining the technicalities of a volcanic eruption. In an almost hour-by-hour account of the two days prior to the eruption and the two days of the explosion itself, Mr. Harris brings these scientific descriptions to life in a thrilling story of courage, venality, fear and decadence.

Marcus Attilius is a young Roman engineer, a widower who has lost his wife and baby son in childbirth. He is sent by Rome to Misenum to serve as the new aquarius, the keeper of the water supply. His task is to find out why the Aqua Augusta, which supplies the towns around the Bay of Naples, is blocked.

Attilius’ predecessor, Exomnius, had disappeared mysteriously some weeks previously.

Despite the sweltering August heat, Attilius races against time to find and correct the source of the problem high up on Mt. Vesuvius. He meets Corelia, the pretty daughter of millionaire Ampliatus, a freed slave who has managed to make his former owner his debtor. When Ampliatus finds he is unable to bribe the new aquarius, he forms an instant dislike for him.

How Attilius solves the problem of the flow of water only to discover a much more serious dilemma, and what happens to the characters and the towns they inhabit when the mountain erupts, is the thrust of the novel. But the real story is the wonder of the Roman aqueduct and the phenomenon of the mountain.

Mr. Harris enthralls the reader with his vivid descriptions of the details of the eruption, from the first, almost casual tremors in the earth, to the rain of gray pumice stone and the fiery storm of ash that turned day into night and buried Pompeii intact.

As Attilius and Admiral Pliny set sail from Misenum to escape the mountain’s rage, they note that “[n]ature had reversed herself so that they were drowning beneath rock in the middle of the sea, drifting in the depths of night during the bright hours of the day.”

The account of the earthquake is coupled with a vivid description of life in the luxurious villas around the bay, where the rich enjoyed unimaginable splendor and debauchery, attended by slaves and impervious to the misery of the poor. The erotic sculptures left behind in Pompeii and Herculaneum are testimony to the brothels and “dens of iniquity” prevalent in cities where 10-year-old girls and boys were the sexual playthings of anyone who could afford to pay a few coins.

Mr. Harris builds the tension of the natural explosion, juxtaposed with the treacheries of his characters — will Corelia be forced to marry her father’s former owner? Will Attilius be able to evade the fate Ampliatus has in mind for him, and will he discover what happened to Exomnius?

Will Admiral Pliny’s library be saved? We all know what happened to Pompeii, but “Pompeii” is a page-turner bringing a dead city to life once again. As for the Aqua Augusta, it continued to flow for centuries thereafter, a tribute to the brilliant ingenuity of ancient Rome.

• • •

“Time is a patient yellow rain that slowly douses even the fiercest of fires.” In his haunting short novel, The Yellow Rain (Harcourt, $22, 144 pages), Julio Llamazares tells the story of a dying old man, the last person living in his village of Ainielle high in the Spanish Pyrenees.

The villagers of Ainielle had been shepherds for the most part. Life was hard and gradually families left the village to seek a better life in the valley. The old man and his wife, Sabina, lost their young daughter to illness. Their son, Andres, left Ainielle against his father’s wishes, and has never returned.

After all the other village families had gone, only the old man, Sabina and their dog remained. No longer able to stand the solitude, Sabina hanged herself one cold night. Her husband was alone.

As the years passed and the yellow rain of falling poplar leaves foretold the long, icy winters to come, the old man watched the houses of his former neighbors decay around him. In the beginning, he would go down into the valley from time to time to buy supplies, but eventually, even those occasional forays ceased.

“Time always flows by like a river: melancholy and equivocal at first, rushing ahead as the years pass.” Now, nothing is left; he has killed the dog; he is visited at night by the ghost of his long-dead mother; he is “alone. Completely alone. Face to face with death.”

Ainielle is based on the now-vanished town of Vegemian in Spain, where Mr. Llamazares was born. There is a poignancy and heartfelt sorrow to the narrative, a poetic elegy of one man’s struggle against the river of time and progress. It’s a lovely, moving book, beautifully translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa.

• • •

An object of virtue “means two things: that each piece of the whole object is perfect … [a]nd it means that the piece was made so that the person who made it could show their ability in a variety of skills in one object.”

In Nicholas B.A. Nicholson’s Object of Virtue (Touchstone Books, $14, 282 pages) the object is an exquisite figurine called Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden, allegedly a long-lost work by Peter Carl Faberge.

Mr. Nicholson, an expert in Russian decorative art and in Faberge objects and jewelry in particular, has worked at Christie’s auction house and traveled in Russia; he also knows the Russian emigre community in this country. Thus, he is well placed to write what he calls “a fictional entertainment” about the art-auction world, a novel based on real people and situations that inspired him.

“Object of Virtue” is indeed entertaining. Its hero, Prince Sasha Ozerovsky, is part of the emigre group of princes and counts and countesses whose parents and grandparents fled the Russian Revolution. He works for an auction house in New York and is very successful in charming customers and in discovering fakes.

When a long-lost Faberge figurine that once belonged to his family appears for sale, Sasha finds himself in the midst of a conflict between his family, the auction house and the somewhat devious middleman who brought the figurine to Sasha.

For all the story’s superficiality, it’s fun to read about the princes and princesses of the Romanov court, both in flashbacks to pre-Revolutionary times, and in the contemporary lives of the emigres.

The technical aspects of the novel are its most interesting feature: the intrigues of the auction business; how the beautiful Faberge objects were created; how fakes (“Fauxberge,” as Sasha calls them) are detected; and the research which goes into establishing the provenance of an object or piece of jewelry.

“Object of Virtue” may not be literature, but it’s fun.

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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