Robert Harris

Fatherland (1994)

Fatherland (1994)

(On-demand video, March 2012) Trying to deliver alternate history on a TV-movie budget is a tough assignment, so it’s best to remain indulgent while tackling HBO’s adaptation of Robert Harris’ celebrated thriller.  A murder mystery set in an alternate 1964 in which the Nazis reign triumphant over Europe, Fatherland focuses on the investigation of an honest SS officer trying to figure out the common link between a number of murders.  The visual look of the film is intentionally dated, as if it was a sixties film rather than a mid-nineties TV production.  Given the budget, the viewer shouldn’t expect much in terms of alternate-universe eye-candy: many swastikas, two or three alt-Berlin matte paintings and a curiously disturbing scene in which Nazis have punch-card computers at their disposal.  Fatherland shares a number of problems with Harris’ novel: The entire story is built upon a revelation that the viewer already knows –a mark of some naiveté in the alternate-universe genre.   The construction of the story is also fairly standard, leaving to a number of imposed scenes in which the expected occurs in pretty much the accepted fashion.  But the film introduces a number of extra problems that make it worse and worse the closer it gets to a conclusion.  Not only does it dispense with the elegiac ending of the novel, but it tries to tries up all loose ends nicely with a fantastically improbable appeal to authority, and then with a twenty-years-later voiceover.  (It also features a divorced father trying to kidnap his kid away from his mother –but hey, that’s the moral leniency we’re supposed to give to protagonists.)  It amounts to a bit of a curiosity; a bog-standard thriller set in an unusual alternate-history framework, with some intriguing images along the way to a disappointing conclusion.  Rutger Hauer is fine as the lead detective, while Miranda Richardson is unexplainably annoying as the American journalist running around and getting in trouble by not showing a shred of cleverness.  But then again, that’s how the script goes: All ham-fisted exposition and transparent character emotions.  Fatherland is worth a look for the curiosity value, but it’s not exactly a good movie.

The Ghost Writer aka The Ghost (2010)

The Ghost Writer aka The Ghost (2010)

(In theatres, March 2010) Roman Polanski may be a runaway convicted pedophile, but he sure knows how to direct a movie.  Faithfully adapted by Robert Harris from his own unusually accessible novel, The Ghost Writer starts with an intriguing premise and then accelerates into a full-blown political thriller.  As a ghostwriter asked to help a former British Prime Minister finish his memoirs after the untimely death of his predecessor, Ewan McGregor is sympathetic enough to hold our interest.  Meanwhile, Pierce Brosnan is convincing as the conniving politician.  The fascinating aspects of ghost-writing are strong enough to allow us to settle in the film’s increasingly frantic pacing.  Once our protagonist starts finding clues about his subject’s past, palace intrigue develops and modern accusations come to besiege their quiet beachfront house.  Added interest can be found in The Ghost Writer’s not-so-subtle political allusions to Tony Blair’s administration.  The film’s plot is nearly identical to the book, but it’s really Polanski’s deft touch with suspense that ties up the film in a neat bow.  A number of showy sequences present familiar developments in refreshing fashion, and the deliberate pacing keeps things neither too slow nor too fast.  Some plot kinks are best explained in the book (which is also a bit more aggressive in political themes), but overall The Ghost Writer is a well-made thriller for adults, bringing back memories of classic seventies movie paranoia.  You can say what you want about Polanski, but the result up on the screen is unarguable.

The Ghost aka The Ghost Writer, Robert Harris

The Ghost aka The Ghost Writer, Robert Harris

Arrow, 2010 film tie-in reprint of 2007 original, 400 pages, C11.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-099-53852-3

I completely missed this novel when it first came out.  Like many thriller readers, I had pigeonholed Robert Harris in the limited-interest “historical thriller” subgenre and opted out after Pompeii when he announced an entire trilogy of classical Roman thrillers.  It didn’t help that I found his novels a bit too slow and generic to catch my attention.

Fortunately, The Ghost is a welcome change of pace.  It’s decidedly modern, decently paced, easily accessible and a joy to read.  While it also mines history for inspiration, it only goes back a few decades, and could only have been written in the past few years.  It deals with contemporary politics, the craft of writing, cutting-edge conspiracies, sordid spying between friends and combines it all in a classic thriller framework.

It starts amiably enough: A London-based professional ghostwriter, a not-to-be-named scribe for the stars, is suddenly offered an important job: He is to drop everything, fly to an estate on Martha’s Vineyard island and help an ex-British Prime Minister write his memoirs.  So far, so good:  He’s a professional, and if the job is high-profile, it’s nothing he’s not prepared to handle.  The politician is so polished that no humanity can escape from him?  No problem.  He sees evidence of marital problems accompanied by hints of an affair between the ex-PM and his assistant?  Whatever: Our hero has a job to do, and after working with rock stars, vapid actresses and illiterate football players, it’s not a high-profile politician that is going to be a challenge.  Even formal charges of war crimes by the International Court against the ex-PM are more interesting than troublesome when our writer gets drafted in writing a statement that is immediately repeated around the planet.

But the situation gets more problematic when our narrator begins accumulating details about his predecessor, who died in an increasingly mysterious fashion after finishing a poorly-written first draft of the biography in question.  Left almost alone in an isolated house, our protagonist is seduced by the ex-politician’s wife, and discovers documents that suggest even deeper secrets.  Left to his own devices while his subject is off confronting international public opinion, the ghost writer soon finds himself trapped in a series of long-repressed secrets that go all the way up…

No doubt about it: Thriller readers are in for a treat with The Ghost.  The perfectly paced rhythm of the novel is initially kept slow: We’re charmed into the story via the titular ghostwriter as he goes about his job and gives us a look at an inglorious profession, with plenty of tricks, tips and revealing anecdotes along the way.  The narration is clean, engaging and effortlessly takes us from one chapter to another.  When the mystery starts, we’re ready for it; when it flips over to thrills, it’s also at the right moment.  By the last act, which takes places between high-stakes power-brokers and tackles weighty geopolitical issues, The Ghost is already a success.

For followers of British politics, there are plenty of extra thrills in contemplating a barely-disguised portrait of Tony Blair leading to a conspiracy theory at once implausible and revelatory.  Among other things, The Ghost is an eloquent demonstration of the possibilities of vengeful writing, as Harris seems to be channeling a fair amount of rage at recent history and uses that emotional power to shape a novel that criticizes key British policy decisions.  In that fashion, The Ghost is not too far away from John LeCarré’s equally-compelling The Constant Gardener.

Readers who have seen Roman Polanski’s well-made movie adaptation will be pleased to find few noteworthy differences between the novel and its big-screen counterpart.  The most notable change come late in the book, which features scenes set in New York that were relocated somewhere else in the movie to accommodate the director’s travel restrictions.  Otherwise, a good chunk of the novel’s events, tone and rhythm are faithfully adapted, in large part due to a script co-written by Polanski and Harris himself.

For disenchanted Harris fans such as myself, The Ghost is a reminder that he can do a whole lot more than write about Roman history.  For thriller readers, it’s a perfectly mastered genre exercise, and for readers in general, it’s a really enjoyable novel –not to be missed now that it’s widely available in a movie tie-in edition.

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.

Archangel, Robert Harris

Arrow, 1998, 421 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-09-928241-0

Robert Harris’ early reputation was based on Fatherland and Enigma, two thrillers that delved deep into history for inspiration. Fatherland, of course, is the poster cover for accessible alternate history (Nazis triumphant! Fear the thought!) while Enigma used WW2-era Bletchley Park as a handy setting for a thriller. With Archangel, Robert Harris gets further away from WW2 by setting his story in the present, but don’t think for a minute that he has shrugged off historical research: While contemporary, Archangel pretty much revolves around the legacy of Joseph Stalin.

The putative protagonist of the tale is one “Fluke” Kelso, a historian with credibility problems who, while passing through modern-day Moscow for a conference, finds himself the recipient of an unexpected barroom confession: Incredibly enough, a man tells Kelso about Stalin’s secret diaries and where they may be buried. As Kelso gulps down information that could lead to a significant historical discovery, the plot is set in motion. It’s hardly surprising to find out that other people are very, very interested in those diaries, and that their goals are dramatically opposed to academic research and publication.

But things are seldom simple, especially in contemporary Moscow. In the hall of dark mirrors that is post-communist Russia, who’s being manipulated by who? In due time, Kelso find himself tracking down an man who has disappeared, running away from the state police along with two untrustworthy allies: a dangerously bitter woman and a journalist with an agenda of his own. Worse yet: what started out as a search for a historical document eventually becomes a confrontation with the ugly possibility of a resurgent Soviet empire.

It won’t surprise anyone to find that Harris’ third novel is heavy on historical research, and a bit softer in the thriller department. Even casual Soviet history buffs will find much to contemplate here, as Harris is able to dig down deep in the murk of Soviet history to wrap up an entertaining historical mystery with grave contemporary implications. The desperate atmosphere of present-day Russia is well sketched, with plenty of evocative details and believable characters, some of whom taken from the pages of history.

The more conventional thriller elements of the novel, unfortunately, aren’t so satisfying. Harris often lets his sense of detail and his research overpower the need for forward momentum, and Archangel leaves the reader with the impression of a short book padded with too many side tangents. The beginning takes its time to heat up, and the ending is particularly long in coming after the final secrets have all been exposed, with an extra-special character who seems clearly too far-fetched to be credible given the authenticity of the rest of the novel.

More significantly, Harris is a bit too glib in supposing how his historical menace could become a future peril for all of Western Civilization: Politics have a way of never turning out how you would expect them, and it’s not as if modern history isn’t crammed with “sure-fire candidates” who ended crashing down with a whimper, especially if they’re not quite sane.

Archangel also ends up on an abrupt ambiguity that doesn’t really matter one way or another, so low is our attachment to the characters. Harris’ novels are most notable for their Big Ideas rather than their talking-heads, and this one is no exception: Readers are more likely to raise their shoulders as the final shot goes off, sufficiently satisfied at the way the historical treasure box was unwrapped.

Generally speaking, it’s a solid thriller –sufficiently interesting not to be forgotten the next day, but too plodding and generic to really make an impression. Harris doesn’t step all that far away from his area of expertise with this story, so his regular readers are unlikely to find themselves in unfamiliar territory. It’s probably a little bit more interesting than Enigma (time will tell), but still a distance away from Fatherland, which is likely to remain Harris’ best-known novel for quite a while. But who knows? Maybe Harris’ following book, Pompeii, will change everything…

Fatherland, Robert Harris

Random House, 1992, 338 pages, C$26.50 hc, ISBN 0-679-41273-5

I’m not a big fan of alternate-history fiction, but even casual readers familiar with the concept know about Fatherland, Robert Harris’ highly successful 1992 debut novel. Whereas the alternate history sub-genre is often seen as a creation of science-fiction storytelling, Fatherland owes more to a blend between historical studies and crime fiction. While this may make the novel more accessible to general audiences (It was published by Random House, after all), I suspect that it also makes it a slight disappointment to experienced SF readers.

Fatherland takes place in 1964, in a very different Germany. The Reich has won World War II by playing it smarter on the Russian front and then coming to an arrangement with the United States. Don’t expect many details: Harris apparently thought it better to stay vague and not give any ammunition to overly critical readers. It’s not as if any of the counter-factual details are important anyway: the real intent of the novel in not to reimagine WW2 as much as it’s to explore what it would be like to live under a victorious Nazi regime.

As a “Nazi victorious” vision, it’s certainly more developed and interesting than, say, Len Deighton’s SS-GB, which laboured under the handicap of taking place too soon after the Nazi victory. Here, things have had time to change. The German population is living the life of imperial citizens and the centrepiece of this victorious Nazi Berlin is a trip through a rebuilt Grand Avenue, an imperial showcase in which the 80ft Brandenburg Gate is a mere architectural footnote when placed next to Hitler’s Palace, the 400ft Arch of Triumph, the 3 miles long Grand Avenue or the 1,000ft-tall Great Hall. It’s no accident if the hardcover’s flyleaf contains an illustration of the area, or if all of Chapter 3 is a guided tour of the area.

But before you start applauding Harris for this spectacular setting, keep in mind that the details of this imperial Berlin were set out in Albert Speer’s architectural plans. Fatherland is not a work of imagination as much as it’s a work of historical scholarship, a fact that becomes obvious once the curtain starts rising on the book’s biggest revelations.

Plot wise, Fatherland begins with the discovery of a body, a discovery that, in time-honoured noir tradition, will reveal bigger and darker secrets, leading SS investigator protagonist Xavier March straight to the secrets of the Nazi regime. This “secret” is all too familiar to us real-world readers, so don’t expect to be surprised by the story as much as be a witness to March’s own aghast surprise.

Hence lies, I believe, the crucial difference between genre readers and general readers when looking at Fatherland. For genre readers, living in a Nazi regime is a hook and (perhaps more importantly), a good jump-off point to other things: If SF writers have taken so well to alternate history, it’s because they can then play with “what if?” scenarios and develop them in ever-wilder speculations. Here, living in a Nazi regime is the big concept and the point of the novel; all else plays within the margins set out by this cadre. I imagine mainstream readers reading this and going “Wow, Nazi Germany victorious!”, but genre readers going “Nice… but is that all?”

It certainly doesn’t make Fatherland a bad book: The investigation proceeds at a decent pace, the characters are interesting (especially March’s own growing dissatisfaction) and the emotional punch of the novel does manage to wring some interest out of familiar elements. It succeeds very well in presenting a society that has integrated the banality of evil, and has even convinced itself of its righteousness despite a gaping blind spot in its recent history. Early twenty-first century readers may want to read the novel with an eye on imperial mechanics, and how a steady stream of far-away terrorism and dirty little wars on the empire’s outskirts are seen as good for “perpetual alertness”.

On strictly literary qualities, Fatherland delivers more than enough interest to keep you reading. It certainly has found an audience over the past twelve years: Made in a movie in 1994, Fatherland has sold well and earned Harris a steady place on the best-seller lists with every one of his three other novels so far (Including Enigma, reviewed earlier). While a bit basic for SF fans, it’s a strong fiction debut, a satisfying read and conceivably a good introduction to the whole alternate history sub-genre.

Enigma, Robert Harris

Arrow, 1995, 390 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-09-999200-0

March 1943. It’s not the darkest hour of the Second World War, but it’s still somewhat bleak. While the Nazis are getting stomped on by the Russians at home, progress is being made in Africa and supplies are getting through, the war isn’t quite won yet. Convoys from America are still the thin lifeline sustaining England and it is essential to keep the U-Boats at bay (or, more accurately, safely sunk on the ocean floor) if the fight is to go on.

Fortunately, the bright fellows at Bletchley Park, a top-secret English codebreaking centre, have cracked the top-secret encryption used by the U-Boats to communicate with their home bases. This allows the British Royal Air Force to oh-so-conveniently patrol the areas where -surprise!- they discover U-Boats ripe for sinking. A cozy arrangements for all except the Nazis and the U-Boat crews.

Naturally, the Germans can’t be allowed to find out that their codes have been broken, right? Otherwise, they’d change it to something completely different and the RAF would be back to totally random patrols. The expression “national security” was invented exactly for situations of this type.

As Robert Harris’ Enigma opens, a “brilliant young mathematician” (it’s in the job description) named Tom Jericho has two problems. First, he’s recalled to Bletchley Park from his self-imposed exile because the Germans have finally switched encryption. Second, but far more importantly, he’s still moping over the cause of his exile, a small love disaster with a girl named Claire.

The fact that their relationship isn’t too spectacular, remains safely in the background or that Claire emerges as something of a trollop isn’t the novel’s principal flaw.

In any case, Jericho is driven back to Bletchley Park, where we get a tour of the facilities with the care we could expect from an author who’s made his reputation with intricately detailed “alternate histories” novels of Nazi-occupied England. The technical details all sound right, and we can only be grateful for yet another good record of not only one of the war’s biggest stories, but also the birthplace of computer theory.

Bletchley Park is a great setting for a spying thriller, mixing dramatic importance with technical possibilities. Enigma also has the advantage of covering what was at the time (1995) unbroken ground for thriller writers. (Ironically enough, the first histories of World War II completely ignored Bletchley Park because all the details were still classified. It is only since the seventies that the relevant papers have been declassified and that the true significance of Bletchley Park has been integrated in the “official” history of the War.)

Well, mostly unbroken ground now. Technically-competent readers have since had the chance to read profusely on the subject of cryptanalysis, and the definitive fictional treatment of Bletchley Park is now to be found in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon.

In other words, try to read Enigma before Cryptonomicon, otherwise Stephenson’s irresistible prose may spoil Harris’ soggy narrative. It’s not that Enigma isn’t a good book (it’s quite good, actually), but it shares with British cuisine an overall air of sophisticated detachment, of carefully studied blandness. Hey, don’t be fooled: it’s still good, smart, perfectly adequate entertainment. But don’t be surprised if you find out that the tough unpleasant British wartime conditions start mirroring the novel’s overall appeal.

(As of this writing (January 2001), the film version of Enigma has screened at the Sundance film festival, garnering mixed critical notice. Perhaps the most puzzling thing about the film is the casting, with Dougray Scott (Jericho), Saffron Burrows (Claire) and Kate Winslet as the “plain” Hester sidekick. Ah, only in the movies… It should open continent-wide sometime in 2001 whenever it finds a distributor.)