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More Fiction, Less History Please
on May 7, 2010
Halfway through "Conspirata", I had one of those terrible epiphanies, the sort that usually only strike middle-aged men in dead-end jobs just before they either leap out the window or take up organic farming. And the epiphany was this: There really is no point to this.
"Conspirata" is the second in a series of novels by British author and former political correspondent Robert Harris, based on the life of famous Roman statesman and orator, Marcus Cicero. The first book, "Imperium", charted his rise from ambitious lawyer to his election as consul, the highest political office in Rome. The narrator in both books is Tiro, a slave owned by Cicero and something of a historical figure himself, thanks to his purported invention of a system of shorthand (though Mr Harris erroneously also attributes the invention of the ampersand, "&", to him).
Readers drawn by the martial-looking eagle on the cover, or who assume any Roman epic is going to involve gladiators, orgies and crucifixions will be cruelly disappointed. "West Wing" fans will be pleased, though. This is a political drama, proudly all talk and no action, where the climactic scenes take place on the rostra, not the colliseum. The single, solitary episode of toga-lifting naughtiness, a tryst between Tiro and a slave of another household, takes place firmly off-camera.
Instead, Mr Harris throws us headlong into the political arena, when Cicero uncovers evidence of a plot against both himself and the City of Rome. The plotters are never much of a mystery, and the focus is instead on how to outmaneuver them. Once they are defeated, the focus in the second half of the novel shifts to Cicero's diminished status once his term of office ends, and on the rise of a fellow named Julius Ceasar in the ensuing vacuum.
Mr Harris displays a casual knowledge of the inner workings of Roman government, but despite the notes provided at the end of the book it can sometimes be a headache to keep your praetors separated from your tribunes, your augurs from your pontifex, your Metelli from your Claudians. Indeed, there is precious little description of anything outside of Senate speeches and private intrigues. The storytelling is competent but uninspiring. Certainly, no Cicero.
I say the novel is "based on" the life of Cicero, but this is doing Mr Harris a disservice. Heck, this IS the life of Cicero. "Conspirata" is first-rate history, which sadly sometimes makes it second-rate entertainment. Ostensibly a novel, the story line hews so closely to historical fact that five minutes on Wikipedia ruined the entire plot for me. For a work of historical fiction, this is too much history, too little fiction. Mr Harris neither alters nor adds to the facts, never suggests an alternative interpretation, never illustrates some unrecorded adventure. The whole thing soon becomes a bit like being cornered at a party by a dreadfully earnest history professor.
This flaw is exacerbated by Mr Harris's choice of Tiro as narrator and Cicero as subject. Particularly during the second half of the book, once Cicero's term as consul is over, he is reduced to mere bystander in greater events. That makes our man Tiro peripheral to the periphery, a third-hand news source doubly removed from all the action. Here you have Julius Ceasar, Rome's most ambitious and ruthless man, Pompey, her greatest general, and Crassus, her richest man, seizing control of the republic, but we see none of it.
It was then that the epiphany hit me. Why bother reading "Conspirata", when a history book would achieve much the same end?
The limited insights Mr Harris offers us are that Cicero was patriotic, Ceasar unscrupulous, Pompey vain and Crassus dim. What is the point of historical fiction, if not to make suggestions, interpretations or changes, to fill in the missing pages or otherwise doodle in the margins of history's textbooks? Why write a novel if not to present us with a work of fiction? This is not a bad book; the plot plows along straightforwardly, characterization is consistent if a little thin. Mr Harris just doesn't seem to have anyting particularly interesting to say about any of it.
Now if you will excuse me, I have some organic vegetables to tend to.