Pompeii, Robert Harris

Arrow, 2003, 397 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-09-928261-5

Given Robert Harris’ track record in mining the twentieth century for inspiration, readers may be surprised to find out that his fourth novel, Pompeii, goes all the way back to the Roman Empire. Granted, even the title spoils the story: The well-known destruction of Pompeii by the Vesuvius volcanic explosion is a matter of historical record –even though we’re still waiting for the major motion picture about it. As pure drama, it’s hard to beat: even non-fiction books about it such as Charles Pellegrino’s Ghost of Vesuvius have this innate dramatic edge that we can easily transpose to modern-day disasters.

Here, Harris takes a techno-thriller approach to the disaster: His first viewpoint character is Marcus Attilius, an engineer investigating why the aqueducts feeding the city aren’t working. Earthquakes and sulphur odours gradually bring him to the truth, though there’s plenty of period detail to enliven matters. The events are known and the plot can be deduced from the first few chapters: But the real reason to read Pompeii is elsewhere, in the description of the time and the place.

Fortunately, Harris is up to the task. Through three more characters (a rich man, his teenage daughter and no less than historical figure Pliny the Elder), he offers himself the luxury of digging through the layers of Pompeii’s society, showing telling details and demonstrating cultural norms on his characters. As the engineer uncovers not only an impending eruption, but also a vast network of corruption, human enemies add up to natural dangers to place him in situations of ever-increasing jeopardy.

But don’t get excited too quickly: Harris has never been the most dynamic of thriller writers, and Pompeii really isn’t as interesting or as gripping as it should be. Despite the impending destruction of Pompeii (signalled by section sub-titles such as “two days before the explosion”), Pompeii seems to be moving (at least initially) at the leisurely pace of a guided tour more than a disaster movie.

Fortunately, good characters can do miracles, and Pompeii is blessed with several of them. The story’s protagonist, young engineer Attilius, is a good and likable hero: competent, fallible, incorruptible and constantly in danger. Of the other characters, I was particularly impressed by the portrayal of Pliny the Elder: not only did I have flashbacks to the Roman classics course I took nearly a decade ago in which Pliny was a featured historical figure, but Harris does a really nice job with the melancholy in being The Most Learned Man in the Known World. Knowing the fate of Pliny only added to the tension of the book’s last section, as you just want to shout at the other characters to stay the heck away from him.

On the other hand, the wealth of period detail really makes me wish this book would have around back when I followed my Roman History course, or that I should have refreshed my memory with a few historical pointers before starting Pompeii. Harris does all he can do to make the setting accessible, of course, but starting completely cold can be a challenge in trying to piece it all together. But some of it works well: The technical details about aqueducts will prove absolutely fascinating to techno-thriller readers, and mesmerizing to anyone wondering about the “running water” aspect of civilization.

What’s unfortunate, though, is that the plot of Pompeii is a distant runner-up in the list of reasons why to read this book. The explosion of the Vesuvius is so spectacular that it takes almost all of the interest of the novel, followed distantly by the details of the Roman society as it existed in Pompeii. Characters and Plot jostle for the third place, but almost as an obligatory requirement.

As I await the big-budget film that will do for Pompeii what TITANIC did to the disaster of the same name, Pompeii proves interesting, though not quite as fascinating as Pellegrino’s afore-mentioned Ghosts of Vesuvius. The dramatic aspect of Harris novel is nice, but it can’t really compete with the real-life examination of the disaster. I suppose that it does the job (and if Hollywood producers are toying with a film concept, they could do worse than combining Harris and Pellegrino’s books into one single script) and sometimes, that’s just enough to keep us interested while waiting for the fireworks.

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