By Robert Harris
Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95, 304 pages
Doings that occur behind closed doors always fascinate and especially if they have to do with politics or power, which is one reason why document leaks always hit the headlines. The allure of secrecy and the thrill of leak-like revelations of secret discussion are the engines of “Conclave,” Robert Harris’ latest novel, which takes readers into the Vatican for the election of a pope.
The electors are the cardinals of the Catholic Church, 118 of them in this case. The drill is that they are sequestered from in the Vatican, where they live in a guesthouse and go to the Sistine Chapel every day to cast their votes. Each time they fail to reach the necessary majority, the ballot papers are burned, and their black smoke signals this news to the watchers in St. Peter’s Square. When a pope is elected, the papers are burned with a chemical that produces white smoke. Shortly thereafter, he appears on the balcony, wearing the papal vestments and now bearing his chosen papal name: Francis in the case of former Cardinal Bergoglio, now the pope.
This much is widely known about papal elections, but the details of the cardinals’ sequestration, and what they do when closeted in the Sistine Chapel, is more obscure. All the cardinals are potential candidates. Do some of them lobby for the job? It would not be unreasonable to imagine that popular cardinals are nominated by their fellows, and that the whole College of Cardinals debates the merits of each nominee before voting. And as for the voting, who could be surprised if it occurred in some arcane medieval form? Maybe the cardinals simply raise their hands or announce Latin yeas and nays. But as “Conclave” reveals, there is no debate in the Sistine Chapel. The cardinals fill out ballot papers with the name they favor, fold them to preserve secrecy, then place them ceremoniously in a chalice with all eyes watching. The votes are immediately tallied, and if no-one wins, the cardinals proceed to another vote — again without debate.
Without debate in the Sistine Chapel that is. When the cardinals return to their hostel for meals they politic vigorously among themselves. Robert Harris shows us all this through the eyes of Cardinal Lomeli, the 75-year old dean of the College of Cardinals, who is in charge of the election. He supports the liberal Cardinal Bellini, who is well-favored by other cardinals. But so too is Cardinal Tedesco, an outspoken conservative who deplores the late-20th-century changes in the church. Bellini knows that Tedesco’s beliefs are sincere, “But sincere nonsense. I stand for respecting other faiths and tolerating different views within our own church.” He also believes women should have more power in the church. Lomeli warns him to keep quiet about this opinion since others will see it as a shortcut to female ordination and oppose him. Tedesco, though, never tempers his views to win votes, though he certainly aims to be pope. Strategically, he arrives late. “It was shrewd of him … With Tedesco less is always more. One outspoken newspaper interview could have finished him,” his opponent notes.
There are two more serious contenders: the French-Canadian Cardinal Tremblay, the chamberlain of the Vatican finances and an adept at getting along, and the Nigerian Cardinal Adeyemi, a man of strong views against women and homosexuals. While Tedesco, Adeyemi, and Tremblay actively campaign and have supporters who canvass on their behalf, Bellini is riven by his sense that he should not seek the papacy, and subsequently by his disappointment as his support diminishes with each vote. Lomeli, on the other hand, though he has no desire to be pope, sees his own tally grow. As for the others, Adeyemi garners early support, but later it’s a race between Tedesco and Tremblay: “between unyielding principle on the one hand; yearning for compromise on the other.”
As a former political journalist Robert Harris is familiar with how principle and compromise play out in the corridors of power. His sharp sense of how power is sought, won, and handled is an important strength of this novel, as it was of his previous books on ancient Rome, is. He is good, too, on the effects of power on people. His portrait of Bellini is acute, and so is his sketch of Tedesco, a man of the people whose down-to-earth style endears him to some and terrifies others.
But while Mr. Harris positions Bellini and Tedesco at opposing ends of the Catholic belief and arrays the other favored cardinals in between, he never moves beyond the barest references to Catholic doctrines or current issues in the church. In effect, he moves “Conclave” into a political story with some thriller elements. It is readable, rather than memorable; entertaining rather than challenging; a sneak peek through the heavy doors of the Sistine Chapel rather than a revelation.
• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.