The subset of novels devoted to an election is small but impressive: I think of Claude Farrère’s “L’Élection Sentimentale,” which riffs on a theme personal to the author: his 1935 election to the Académie Française despite objections that he was a hack. C.P. Snow’s “The Masters” makes heavy weather of an election to fill the vacant mastership of a college at Cambridge University. Edwin O’Connor’s “The Last Hurrah” turns on an aging Boston mayor’s decision to seek one term too many. Tom Perrotta’s “Election” shows that a high school campaign for student-body president can be as vicious as any.
Now comes Robert Harris’s splendid “Conclave,” which centers on an election that, for the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, rivals the one that jolted the United States earlier this month: a papal election. We Americans chose a mere maker of earthly policy, but the Catholic cardinals will choose a new keeper of the Keys to the Kingdom.
When a papal vacancy arises, the electors — Catholic cardinals under age 80 — gather in Vatican City for a session governed by dramatic rituals. (For example, black smoke rising from a chimney means “not yet,” while white smoke means a pope has been chosen.) You need a two-thirds majority to win, at least in the early going; after 30 tries, a simple majority will do. But the cardinals are under pressure not to drag things out. The more ballots taken, the more divided the Church will appear. And the Church of “Conclave” is deeply divided, just like the one in real life.
At stake is control of a hierarchy grappling with such issues as the Church’s stances toward women and homosexuality. One prelate in “Conclave,” a Filipino who has become cardinal-archbishop of Baghdad, goes so far as to characterize the ideological rift of the past 60 years — that is, since the Second Vatican Council — as a “great schism” in the making. Far apart as they are, the two sides might concur with the sentiment voiced by one cardinal after being told that the late pope “had doubts about God.” “Not about God!” the cardinal replies. “Never about God! What he had lost faith in was the Church.”
Harris’s protagonist is Jacopo Lomeli, dean of the College of Cardinals and the man charged with running the election. Like Lomeli, the deceased pope was a liberal; the dean and his left-leaning brethren would like to see the Keys of St. Peter entrusted to one of their own, the Vatican’s secretary of state. The conservatives are backing the patriarch of Venice, whose laundry-list of throwback reforms starts with re-prescribing the Latin Mass. A dozen or so other cardinals, along with a few nuns, play leading roles. That’s a lot of characters to conjure with in a mid-length book, but Harris keeps them all distinct.
Since the cardinals deliberate in secret and tell no tales, Harris can give his imagination a long leash. Who’s to say that some candidates don’t troll for votes, even offering what look like bribes; that others aren’t hiding checkered pasts, which, if revealed, will plunge the Church into scandal; or that popes don’t behave erratically from time to time?
The aberrations of the late pontiff, a liberal in the mode of Pope Francis, came during his final days of life. He ordered one of the cardinals most likely to succeed him, a swaggering Canadian, to resign all his church offices. Odder still, the pope appears to have created a new cardinal in pectore — i.e., secretly. (This can actually be done, but almost never is.) The outsider arrives in Vatican City unannounced and little-known, but his credentials are accepted. These two bombshells will have much to do with the story’s denouement.
Harris has written thrillers (“Fatherland,” “Enigma”) and historical novels, notably his Cicero trilogy (“Imperium,” “Conspirata” and “Dictator”), which can hold its own with the best fiction written about ancient Rome. “Conclave” is a departure: suspenseful but not violent, steeped in religious history but taking place the day after tomorrow. Harris also sprinkles in some clerical gossip, such as the Canadian cardinal’s take on the fiasco surrounding the 1978 death of Pope John Paul I after only 33 days in office. “We’ve spent the last forty years trying to convince the world that he wasn’t murdered, and all because nobody wanted to admit his body was discovered by a nun.”
A surprise result is almost de rigueur for an election novel, and Harris does not disappoint. Not only do the cardinals choose a dark horse, but the new pontiff guards an astonishing secret.
Regardless of whether you have faith in God, the Church, or neither, “Conclave” will keep you richly entertained.
Dennis Drabelle is a former contributing editor of Book World.
By Robert Harris
Knopf. 304 pp. $26.95