Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Pompeii – Robert Harris

Robert Harris gives us another example of his tight, purposeful prose style in Pompeii. Perhaps the only literary flourish, if it can be called that, which he allows himself is on page 2. Having placed the hero, the aqueduct engineer Marcus Attilius, in the foreground from the very start, the narrator continues: ?He raised his hand to the sky, his blunt-tipped fingers black against the glittering constellations ? spread them, clenched them, spread them again ? and for a moment it seemed that he was the shadow, the nothing; the light was the substance?. Everything that follows is no-frills, plot-driven storytelling ? no pointless internal monologues, no solipsism or arty self-absorption. It makes for quite a refreshing read when you consider the number of authors who routinely disappear up their own arses and/or insist their characters do the same.

The tone thus created is perfectly suited to portray Attilius, a practical man with no time for politics, philosophizing or the conceits which inevitably accompany wealth. The story takes place over four days, beginning two days before the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD and climaxing on the final day of the eruption itself. Harris? well-honed commercial instincts are in evidence. He juxtaposes many saleable ideas in this novel ? people with a taste for Cecil B. de Mille will read it. So will people interested in natural history. Add to these elements a detective-thriller format incorporating the genesis of a love-story, and you?ve got yourself a belter of an idea for a popular novel. Good ideas do not, however, always make good novels. Harris still has to pull the formula off, and has succeeded in doing so. His narrator trudges relentlessly forward with the plot, and this makes the aforementioned juxtaposition come together quite seamlessly.

If I wanted to be picky, I might say that there were one or two overly-convenient plot-devices, but probably the novel?s weakest feature is that the characters, although well drawn, are left underdeveloped. Harris could have done much more with Attilius, or his dreams about his dead wife; or Corax, the overseer; or Ampliatus, the freed slave and nouveau-riche villain. Were this a detective-thriller written about the twentieth century, Ampliatus would be the local outfit boss who came up from the gutter, scarred, bitter, unapologetic for the blackness of his heart, with a look that says ?At the age of ten, I had to beg for work down in the hole?, and who has never forgiven or forgotten anything. But Harris falls short here. Although we learn about aspects of Ampliatus? background, we?re never really shown the raw intensity of his will to avenge himself upon the world. This would have helped us get a handle on his humanity. The reader should be given the opportunity to like the villain and/or dislike the hero as they see fit. But with Ampliatus, we get an initially promising, but ultimately one-dimensional bad-guy. What Harris is concentrating on with his characters is to make them recognisable despite their antiquity. Whether or not this sometimes constitutes intellectual anachronism is for the reader to decide.

Probably the best-drawn character is Harris? fictionalised version of the Roman author Pliny, admiral of the Western Mediterranean fleet, at port in the bay of Naples during the eruption. Pliny was killed at Pompeii, and his work, Natural History, is quoted intermittently throughout the novel, the first instance of which gives us our first clue as to what Pompeii is ‘about’ (as if a good yarn wasn?t enough) ? ?In the whole world, wherever the vault of heaven turns, there is no land so well adorned with all that wins nature?s crown as Italy, the ruler and second mother of the world, with her men and women, her generals and soldiers, her slaves, her pre-eminence in arts and crafts, her wealth of brilliant talent?? (Damn, that boy could write!) This rather beautiful passage is counter-pointed with a little pseudo-historical ditty from Tom Wolfe ? ?American superiority in all matters of science, economics, industry, politics, business, medicine, engineering, social life, social justice, and of course, the military was total and indisputable. Even Europeans suffering the pangs of wounded chauvinism looked on with awe at the brilliant example the United States had set for the world as the third millennium began?. So we?ve heard this kind of triumphalist guff before, and for all their flaws, at least the Romans did it more artfully than the Americans. Pompeii, then, becomes a novel about the frailty of human achievement, fortune and empire. This theme is mirrored in the circumstances of many characters. For example, the ruling oligarchy of Pompeii are owned, lock, stock and barrel, by Ampliatus. He himself is not nearly as wealthy as everyone imagines. He is, in fact, heavily in debt, living on public confidence.

Seeing as the Tom Wolfe quote renders one of Harris? themes so obviously contemporary, I feel free to insert one of my own ? an interesting question was thrown up in the final chapters, which I read on St. Stephen?s Day [Editor’s note:December 26th, 2003], just as the news came through that the ancient city of Bam had been destroyed by an earthquake, with the eventual loss of fifty-thousand lives. How apposite was it, then, that in Harris? narrative, a senator?s wife begs Attilius for help during the eruption? She needs to get word to her friend, Pliny. She needs a ship. She fears for the contents of her family?s library. Attilius explains that he is far too preoccupied saving people to worry about books. She responds “People perish. Books are immortal.? and pleads with him ? ‘This is where we keep the volumes which my ancestors brought back from Greece. One hundred and twenty plays by Sophocles alone. All the works of Aristotle, some in his own hand. They are irreplaceable. We have never allowed them to be copied.? She gripped his arm. ?Men are born and die by the thousand every hour. What do we matter? These great works are all that will be left of us. Pliny will understand??.

I have to admit, I could see the lady?s argument. I know people who have been to Bam, and told me how beautiful it was. I had always intended to go there. Now there?s no point. Compared with the death-toll, I was wondering just how trivial this concern was, and the following thought occurred to me: The peoples of South-Western Asia have suffered relentlessly for thousands of years, but at least they have two things to show for that suffering. They have great literature and great architecture. Make no mistake ? these achievements, monuments to an awakening human self-awareness, could only have been arrived at through suffering. When they are also destroyed, maybe that is an even more elemental form of tragedy.

I strongly recommend this book. Despite its flaws, I defy you not to enjoy it.

Pompeii by Robert Harris is published by Arrow Books

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