POLITICS is the thread that runs through Robert Harris’s work — whether journalism, fiction or non-fiction.
Introducing the author, the film director Paul Greengrass noted that his novels range from ancient Rome to the present day via an alternate-reality Nazi Germany of the Sixties — yet all somehow manage to be relevant to our contemporary concerns.
Greengrass, whose oeuvre includes three of the Jason Bourne films along with Bloody Sunday, Omagh and United 93, said he would have liked to have had a crack at directing The Ghost — Harris’s loose Roman clef about the Blairs (the 2010 film of which was made by Roman Polanski, with whom the author co-wrote the screenplay).
Politics certainly lies at the heart of Harris’s latest novel, Conclave, a Vatican-set thriller based around the election of a pope.
The author, who is not himself religious, recently told one interviewer: “This is the oldest election in the world, and the most mysterious. I’ve been intrigued by it for years.”
Derived from Latin via French, the word “conclave” (literally “with key”) was originally used to denote a private, lockable room.
In terms of his inspiration for the book, Harris cited a secret diary kept by one of the cardinals in the 2005 conclave that resulted in the election of Pope Benedict.
Written anonymously and against all the rules, this was eventually published in an Italian magazine, providing what Harris says is the best insight into the process we have available.
Recalling the election of Pope Francis in 2013, Harris spoke of seeing television footage of the faces of the various cardinals watching the procession of the new pontiff to greet his public in St Peter’s Square.
Saying they had called to mind the Roman senate, it seems this was the moment the author realised how intensely political as well as spiritual an event the papal conclave invariably is.