by Robert Harris
The day it rained fire
A review by Ron Charles
One cataclysmic disaster can ruin your whole day, but at least it has the advantage
of surprise. That's more than can usually be said for stories about cataclysmic
disasters, which lumber toward their climax like some bore telling a multipart
joke you've already heard. Who honestly didn't feel the urge to push a few heads
under water to speed up James Cameron's interminable Titanic? We endure
documentaries about German aerodynamics because we want to see the Hindenburg
in flames. "Oh, the banality!"
Robert Harris confronts this very problem in his new novel about the explosion
of Vesuvius, called simply Pompeii. When the story opens on Aug. 22,
AD 79, we know that by the end of the week, none of these characters will be
shouting "TGIF." But how to fill the pages till that moment when the
mountain erupts with a force 100,000 times as strong as the Hiroshima atomic
bomb, shooting magma at a speed of Mach 1?
Harris admits that he just barely avoided disaster himself. After observing
the United States for more than a year, he had intended to write a novel set
in the near future. "The story I had in mind," he says, "might
loosely be described as 'The Walt Disney Company takes over the world': a thriller
about a utopia going horribly wrong," but "the characters stubbornly
refused to come alive and the subject remained as flimsy as smoke." Or,
perhaps he realized that Julian Barnes had already written that novel brilliantly
just three years ago in England,
England. But for whatever reason, we've been spared another Brit's
satire of America (Vernon
God Little is enough to endure for this season), and given this terrifically
engaging novel instead.
The key to Harris's success is his concentration on a crisis that preceded the volcano's eruption by two days. Back in 33 BC, the Romans had constructed a 60-mile aqueduct that eventually served towns all along the Bay of Naples, giving rise to a culture and an economy that floated high on the presumption of dependable, clean water. When a break in the main line begins shutting off one town after another, only Marcus Attilius Primus knows how to save the day.
Attilius, as he's called, is a young widower, a water engineer from a long line of water engineers, who's just been appointed to Misenum, home to a Roman fleet. His early weeks on the job have been rough: His predecessor has vanished mysteriously, his staff mocks his authority, and now the water has stopped flowing for the first time in 100 years, threatening to plunge a quarter of a million people into dry chaos.
Piecing together reports from travelers about the status of other towns along
the coast, Attilius quickly deduces that the break must be some where near
Pompeii. As the reservoir drains in Misenum, he secures permission from Pliny
the Elder (wonderfully brought back to life here) and heads out with a small,
The passage of 2,000 years has not diminished the technical dimensions of this
task nor the social risks of failure. Harris conveys the modern elements
of this ancient life with startling effect.
One can't help considering the two crumbling tunnels that supply New York City with all of its water. Let's hope there are many Attiliuses toiling away on Tunnel No. 3, to be completed in 2020. (Sip slowly, New Yorkers.)
In fact, what's even more interesting than the mechanical aspects of this ancient system are the moral developments that Harris traces through these characters. First-century Romans enjoyed the benefits of a remarkably advanced system of commerce, science, and art, but their society was dogged by that familiar triumvirate of corruption, cruelty, and sloth. Attilius emerges as a timeless hero, a man driven by duty but animated by compassion, courageous enough to fight nature, but wise enough to fear its fury. His struggle to solve this engineering crisis, fend off his mutinying workers, and resist the grief that always threatens to wash back over him makes him an utterly fascinating and sympathetic character. And though he's far removed from the sophisticated economy humming around him, he demonstrates that essential requirement for a successful market economy: integrity.
But in the literary tradition of all great struggles, the flashier part goes
to the villain. Numerius Popidius Ampliatus rose from slave to master the modern
way: insider trading. Cruel and clever, he's both Caligula and Ken Lay. We meet
him on the afternoon he's trying to generate a little entertainment by feeding
a servant to the eels. Attilius interferes, earning Ampliatus's rage and his
daughter's heart. But this self-made crook owns a heavily mortgaged empire of
bathhouses that need cheap water so he pretends to support Attilius's emergency
efforts at least until he can kill him.
Of course, while our hero races against the clock to stave off a collapse of the aqueduct and avoid being murdered, we know that his clock is about to be blasted away by one of history's most spectacular natural disasters. Harris marks the passing hours and minutes with fanciful precision at the beginning of each chapter, along with pithy quotations from volcano experts ancient and modern.
If the present-day dialogue sounds a bit incongruous in togas and the romance
a bit forced, such minor objections are quickly blasted away. When the moment
finally arrives a column of magma shooting miles into the sky the story
rises spectacularly to convey the surreal conditions that tortured these people
for days: the sea filled with pumice, the ground rolling in waves, whole towns
flash-burned, asphyxiated, and then sealed beneath tons of ash.
But Harris hasn't brought those haunting, calcified forms to life just for the sport of entombing them again 2,000 years later. The light he shines on that awesome crisis, and the way good and bad people responded, illuminates our continued dependence on the most fundamental elements a stable earth and a righteous man.
is the Monitor's book editor. Send
comments about the book section.
News, Culture, and 21 FREE issues
The Christian Science
Monitor offers independent, thoughtful journalism, together with stimulating cultural criticism. This award-winning newspaper is hard to find at
newsstands. But you can get the entire paper weekdays in a convenient PDF, with a hyperlinked table of contents. The Monitor Treeless Edition costs only $8 a month, half the cost of a print subscription, and now you can try it free for one month.
Find out more about this special offer.