Friday, December 08, 2006

Imperium by Robert Harris

(Book Review)
Now that I’ve finally finished off the last two books in McCullough’s “Masters of Rome” series, I am beginning to remember why I used to be so interested in this period of history, particularly the last 100 years of the Roman Republic. With my interest officially rekindled, I began to wonder if there were any other good historical novels that dealt with the same period of time.

And then, (what perfect timing), a new historical novel “Imperium”, which chronicles the life of Cicero, just came out this fall. I don’t often like paying hardcover prices for new books, but I figured in this instance it was worth it.

This book is the life of Cicero as told from the perspective of his secretary Tiro. (According to the author’s end note, the actual Tiro really did write a biography of Cicero, but it was lost with the collapse of the Roman Empire.) At only 300 pages, this book is significantly shorter than McCullough’s books, but then it only covers a short part of Cicero’s life. Although the author does not explicitly say so, I can only assume that this is to be the first book of a larger series, because it ends before most of the major events in Cicero’s life.

The book itself has a number of serious flaws. I guess I feel about this book the same way I feel about the comic book novels I’ve recently reviewed on this blog. I was so enamored with the subject material, that I enjoyed the book in spite of its literary shortcomings. (And I will probably buy and read the sequels when they come out.) But there are a lot of serious problems with this book.

For reasons that are mystifying to me, this book got a lot of very good reviews. I think that is because the life of Cicero isn’t generally known to the average person, and I think a lot of reviewers were just really excited to be able to put some sort of story in connection with all those stuffy Cicero Latin quotes which have survived the ages.

In comparison with McCullough’s series, however, this book is definitely the poorer of the two. I will try and keep the comparisons to McCullough to a minimum, because I realize that it would only be of interest to someone like me who had read both books recently. But I got a much better picture of Cicero from her books, and her books weren’t even about Cicero. In her books, Cicero is just a supporting character in a story about Julius Caesar.

In McCullough’s books, we first meet Cicero as a 17 year old youth serving an internship in Pompey Strabo’s army. We then follow him as he makes his first appearances in Rome, takes his first court case, and meets his friend Atticus for the first time.

In Robert Harris’s book, we start when Cicero is 30, despite the fact that the narrator, Tiro, has known Cicero since childhood. All of Cicero’s life up to that point is covered in a few paragraphs, and his time in the army and his famous case defending a client accused of Patricide are virtually ignored. A great opportunity to add some depth and interest to the characters is lost.

There are several supporting characters in “Imperium” who help Cicero in his political career. His friend Atticus, his younger brother Quintus, his cousin Lucius, his protege Frugi, etc. These characters are present in most scenes (apparently they have nothing better to do but follow Cicero around) but none of them are developed at all. They’re nothing more to the reader than a bunch of names to keep track of. And what little characterization we do get is done in the worst way possible: by the narrator simply telling the reader. (Didn’t Robert Harris ever take “Creative Writing 101"? Isn’t that the cardinal sin for fiction writers?) For instance, we know Atticus was an Epicurean because the narrator states: “Atticus was an Epicurean.” Otherwise we would have no way of knowing from the story. In the same way we know Quintus Cicero is not as clever as his older brother, but more militarily inclined. It is told to us directly by the narrator, not shown in the story. And despite Quintus being in almost every scene, that’s as much characterization as he gets in the whole book.

As for the history parts:
This book ends with the election of Cicero as consul, so it doesn’t get into the Catiline conspiracy. But it does lay the ground work for it, and sets up Catiline as a pretty nasty villain. In my high school paper, I argued that Cicero exaggerated or made up many of Catiline’s crimes for his own political purposes, and that they were afterwards recorded into history. (Or rather, Lester Hutchinson argued that point, and I plagiarized him for my paper). Robert Harris seems to be taking Cicero’s allegations against Catiline at face value. Which I guess is the difference between a serious history and a historical novel. In a serious history you spend a lot of time analyzing conflicting accounts to get to the truth. In a historical novel, you are free to use which ever account best serves your dramatic purposes. And having Catiline as a great villain and, by correlation, Cicero as a great hero, definitely makes the story more exciting.

The big problem though, as Hutchinson points out, is that if all those awful allegations about Catiline were true, how in the world did he manage to stay in good graces with the aristocratic Roman Senate? And this seems to be the 500 pound Gorilla in Robert Harris’s novel. How does this psychotic, murdering, incestuous sex fiend keep moving in the snobbiest circles of the Roman aristocracy?

Also, in order to preserve the hero-villain dichotomy of the novel, Harris presents a view of history in which all of Cicero’s enemies are in conspiracy together. For example when Clodius prosecutes Catiline, Harris’s takes the unlikely explanation that both Clodius and Catiline engineered a show trial to boost their respective reputations. That’s right, Catiline arranged to have himself prosecuted, because he thought it would increase his popularity. Would it have been too much complexity to admit the possibility that Clodius could hate Cicero and also hate Catiline? Would that have been too confusing for the readers?

And then it gets worse. Harris takes the (I believe almost universally disregarded) view that Caesar and Crassus were secretly funding the Catiline conspiracy. By the time you get to the end of this book, it’s like reading the “Conspiracy Nut's Guide to Ancient Roman History”. I suppose some of this (and the discussion it generates) is all part of the fun of historical novels. But to me, it just seemed too ridiculous. All that being said, I’m still looking forward to the next volume in this series, just to see what Robert Harris’s take on events will be.

One last addendum: Robert Harris takes advantage of the post 9-11 world to draw some parrallels between ancient and modern history. The Pirate attacks, and the resulting panic in Rome and Pompey's power grab are retold in terms very reminiscent of the 9-11 terrorist attack and the resulting expansion of government power. This makes the book feel a bit more relevant to today's world. It will also date the book in 20 years time, but then I severely doubt anyone will still be reading this book in 20 years.
Update: Interview with the Robert Harris on NPR here confirms that this is indeed intentional. Not that there is much of a chance of people missing it.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
"Birthday" begins with a blues progression in A (in the form of a guitar riff doubled by the bass) with Paul singing at the top of his chest voice, "They say it's your birthday/ Well it's my birthday too, yeah!" Afterwards, a drum break lasting eight measures brings the song into Lennon's section, which rests entirely on the dominant before returning to a third section, sung by McCartney. It is among the latter's most intense vocal performances due to the range in which he sings during the blues run. The female backing vocals that sing the "birthday" were performed by Yoko Ono, Linda Eastman and Patti Harrison.

Link of the Day
What the media aren't telling you about the Iraq Study Group report

And, via Phil's Blog:
From This Month's Harper's Index"Amount a 2006 defense bill authorized for a daylong "celebration" of "success" in Iraq and Afghanistan: $20,000,000""Date on which the authorization was extended to 2007: 9/30/06"
I wonder how many teachers we could've afforded with that 20 mill alotted for propaganda. Not very convincing propaganda, most likely.

Imperium by Robert Harris: Book Review (Scripted)


Anonymous said...

So McCullough outshines Harris? Very interesting. I haven't read the Harris book, and I've only read a little of McCullough, but the one stylistic problem I had with her was her use of the info-dump. "You will remember, Plotinus, that it was but five years ago when ..." If you're writing a historical novel, or sci-fi, you've gotta do it. But there are good ways and not so good ways, and Harris (based on Fatherland alone) usually favoured the info-leak over the actual dump.

Joel Swagman said...

That's pretty fair actually. Which is why I say if you have absolutely no interest in history, McCullough's series isn't for you.

As for Harris, if you look online "Imperium" has gotten a lot of good reviews, so I'm somewhat standing alone over here. But i stand by what I say. This is a book that could have been great, but settled for okay.