Saturday, January 29, 2005

Historical Thriller

Pompeii, by Robert Harris, Read by John Lee, Books on Tape, Inc., 2003

Historical novels are often a dicey proposition. How does one tell the story of the past and balance the need for a compelling narrative with the necessity for the accumulation of period details? Indeed, how thick should the layering of these particulars be to both effectively convey the era and to explain and illuminate character motivation and time period conventions? The best writers of this craft novels that subtly educate while entertaining; the worst write bodice-ripping romances.

Robert Harris, fortunately, finds himself in the first category, though Pompeii, his most recent novel is inclined to some of the more obvious clichés of the thriller genre. For make no mistake, this novel is first and foremost a race against time thriller with shifting goals that happens to find itself set in the first century CE.

The story follows aquarius (head architect/engineer for the Roman aqueduct) Marcus Attilius as he tries to discover why the water lines have begun to dry up and to repair whatever damage may have been done to the system. The line he works on is the Aqua Augusta, the largest line in the Roman Empire feeding the cities of Pompeii, Neapolis, and Herculaneum. It is an interesting tack to take, as we know that no matter how Attilius’ aquatic troubles are resolved, they are pointless in the face of what is coming. Yet Harris’ narrative skills are such that we come to care if Attilius succeeds or not. Added to his concerns are his developing feelings for Corelia, daughter of the richest man in Pompeii, the villainous Ampliatus.

Part of what makes us root for Attilius is that it isn’t just the incipient eruption that he’s racing against, but also Ampliatus’ wicked designs. Once a slave and now the most powerful man in Pompeii, Ampliatus wants Attilius dead before he can reveal the crimes behind the slave’s rise in stature. Having gained immense riches through land speculation, “purchasing” and renovating the abandoned homes of aristocrats following the earthquake of seventeen years earlier, Ampliatus has been diverting large quantities of water from the aqueduct in order to fill his latest business venture, hot baths and spas. To be discovered means ruin to him, and so he seeks to silence Attilius in any way possible.

Harris tells the historical details, catching small items that might otherwise have gone unnoticed, things that show how mirrored of the Roman Empire we have become. The nouveau riche who grow quickly wealthy on the newfound technology of mix-and-pour concrete; the sprawl of small towns near the cities of Neapolis and Herculaneum, growing so quickly it is impossible to tell where one starts and one stops; the bureaucracy essential to run such a large concern and its maddening ways.

Each chapter, headed up by a time count of the hour, told in Roman fashion by its Latin name, is also accompanied by quotes of a slowly, increasingly alarming nature from a variety of volcanic encyclopedia entries. The introduction of modern science text in a historical thriller is a bit curious and never quite settles down naturally into the frame of the book, however much it may provide an almost immediate payoff on its foreshadowing.

Another fascinating aspect of the book is learning just how mechanically advanced, how well-thought out, the aqueduct system was in ancient Rome. One doesn’t necessarily think of modern style indoor plumbing in 79CE (though it was apparently common in affluent homes), let alone the technological refinement such as holding tanks every two miles or so along the water line. The purpose of these? To slow down the water so impurities can sink to the bottom, providing cleaner water down the line. Ingenious simplicity, if not up to modern standards.

That the volcano eruption happens at the end of disc seven in a nine disc set somewhat diffuses the climactic moment, comprising mostly of two hours of character interaction including a lengthy dinner in which Pliny the Elder discourses on wine and climate. If this reads as interesting, it is for demonstrating how some people, no matter how bad the circumstances, will insist that what is occurring is not so far from normal.

Harris here provides a logical explanation for why so many were caught in the lava flow, despite the volcano’s rumblings throughout the day previous. After the initial rain of pumice, there is a calm. With the memory of the earthquake in their minds, these citizens believed the worst had passed, and they returned to their homes to rescue family members abandoned or possessions they feared would be looted. Within the disaster, we ultimately lose specific sight of Attilius in his quest to rescue Corelia, but Harris does include a persistent legend surrounding survivors which we are clearly meant to understand is our hero and his damsel. Ampliatus’ end is perhaps too quickly passed over to feel the justice of it, as revolting a character as he is.

As Vesuvius begins to erupt, coating the Pompeiians with a chalky ash as they fled in the streets, I was immediately reminded of the fleeing crowds in lower Manhattan on September 11th. Their faces too were marked by terror and ash. Likewise came the scenes of destruction from the tsunami. A tragedy on any scale, whether it be the loss of a loved one or a loss of an entire city, suddenly and completely renders humanity equal. All of us suffer loss in the same manner, all of us grieve with the same pain.

One of the weaknesses of this kind of historical fiction in audio format is that any illustrations the actual book may have provided, such as a small map of the area showing the Bay of Naples, Pompeii’s respective distance to Vesuvius, and the nearby towns of Herculaneum and Neapolis. We are left to the author’s description of the surrounding area and Harris seems to be not particularly interested in focusing on geography to any great extent. As such, it is quite possible to get a strange view of what the area around Vesuvius looks like.

Likewise the weakness in the main character, who while being an interesting character for being so differently composed from so many other thriller protagonists, also suffers from many of the same stock clichés of the type. He is, like many, a heartbroken widower, meaning he has nothing to lose! He is superhuman, going three nights of the four days of this novel without any sleep of any meaningful duration, all the while suffering great stresses and strains throughout the day, like almost being swept away in the current once the aqueduct’s pressure is restored. There is, of course, the love interest with Corelia, a plot element that is neither wholly plausible nor necessary.

Very precise British reader, John Lee, does his usual respectable job. When he first started, the memory of the execrable Peter Mayle novel was fresh in my mind, and so I partly was inclined against this book somewhat on the account of his having read that. When he is required to read a homosexual Pompeian politician, even though the narrative gives no reason for the characterization, and even though the text spells out clearly that the character is a homosexual, Lee lisps his way through the dialogue. He doesn’t do a terrible mince of it, yet it seems unnecessary, a modern characterization. Nevertheless, he provides his usual up to snuff services, rendering Pompeii in warm tones and individuated characters.

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