By Roberto Pazzi

Translated from the Italian

By Oonagh Stransky

Steerforth. 231 pp. Paperback, $14.95

Pope John Paul II has headed the Catholic Church since 1978. Though the media regularly trawl for papabili (likely future popes), his lengthy tenure has outlasted many potential successors. Cardinals once promoted as the next pope have themselves reached an age at which they are unlikely to follow in his prodigious footsteps. That doesn't end journalists' speculations, of course.

Conclave is a speculation of another sort, not so much about who will be elected but why anyone should be elected. A satiric fable written in the spirit of magic realism with all its surrealistic outcroppings, the novel imagines a future gathering, or conclave, to elect a new pope truly able to meet the challenges of the modern world yet holding to the traditional beliefs of the Catholic church. The travails of the election mirror all of the church's current conflicts and contradictions.

Cardinals from around the world -- 127 as the conclave opens -- are sealed off in the Vatican. Secrecy and confidentiality are required; gossip and discreet politicking are tolerated. Should the Italians be restored to their historic role? Wouldn't another Eastern European put an end to that ambition? Africa, the church's youngest member, exhibits vitality lost to the Europeans. A Palestinian would introduce a geopolitical revolution, while the long-oppressed Latin Americans promise to bring the marginalized to the center of the Church. The gum-chewing Americans clearly lack finesse. And the Germans are too cranky. Particular candidates prove to have serious drawbacks: too ambitious, too much the bella figura, too orthodox, too political, too spiritual, too old. None wins the trust of his confre{grv}res.

As the weeks wear on, grave doubts enter the conclave. Where is the Holy Spirit? Fears and anxieties mount. At the suggestion of an Estonian monk, reluctantly torn from his cell and made a cardinal, a Turkish bath with sauna is constructed to ease the prelates' aging bones and downcast spirits, but this introduces the specter of decaying flesh. Has God abandoned his church or taken up residence with another religious leader, the Dalai Lama, perhaps?

A collective crisis of body and soul ensues: Aged cardinals die, some ignominiously, while others plead feebleness to avoid the twice-daily balloting. Yet none can depart the sacred precincts. Escapes are planned, executed and foiled. A plague of rats descends, and the ingenious Vatican chief engineer rounds up Roman cats for a counterattack. Scorpions swarm over the Sistine Chapel, and hens are carted in to peck them to death. Is Satan at work? An attack of bats requires a flock of owls in the sacred conclave. The cats have kittens, and a doctrinal dispute breaks out over animal rights and birth control.

To the consternation of the cardinal charged with maintaining the secret deliberations, once the forbidden leaks stop, the media end their coverage. There is nothing to report -- or to leak. Heads of state vent their anger at the failure to elect a pope. Catholic churches around the world threaten to elect their own popes. And always there are the enigmatic behaviors induced by sexual repression, of whatever orientation. The incantations and songs of the Africans bring on a night of drumming and dancing that catches up even the most enfeebled prelate in its rhythms, followed by a mealtime of irrepressible laughter caused by a fish stew. A fierce storm hits Rome, threatening the cupola of St. Peter's itself. The battle between Good and Evil is a draw; it can be resolved only by the election of a new pope. Will there be one?

Robert Pazzi's treatment of this imagined conclave is by turns amusing and horrifying and, given his satirical intent, even touching. Rather than being well-drawn characters, the cardinals represent varied combinations of theological and spiritual tendencies designed to test the discerning powers of the conclave and the coherence of the papacy. The "what if there were no pope?" proposition at the center of the story allows Pazzi to play theological brinksmanship while the cardinals pass through the 10 plagues of the Book of Exodus and John of the Cross's dark night of the soul. The Turkish bath with its steam vents and the ravishing figures in Michelangelo's fresco "The Last Judgment" appear prominently in the development and the denouement of the story, evoking the death and resurrection of the Savior whom the cardinals intermittently intend to serve.

The two settings, bath and judgment, conjure up a cinematic version -- Federico Fellini directing from beyond the grave with the technical advice of the unnamed pope whose death has set this fable in play, and who had some theatrical experience himself. And yes, a new pope will be elected -- or so Pazzi imagines. *

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels was the editor of Commonweal from 1998-2002.