Tuesday, April 6, 2010
POMPEII by Robert Harris
I read this book at the end of 2003. What follows are my notes to myself.
X Jan. 1, 2004: I finished reading “Pompeii” Robert Harris’ latest novel last night. The characters, the story, and the physical and historic setting carried me along. There were two glaring false notes in the writing. The first in a scene in which the reader hears a conversation between the antagonist, Ampliatus, and a character whose identity is hidden as a device to build suspicion and suspense. That might be appropriate in a film, but not in a novel with an omniscient narrator. The second and worst false note because it is a copout comes in the conclusion of the book. The eruption of Vesuvius is set up as inescapably murderous—with the protagonist, Attilius, the acquarius, and Corelia, a girl he has risked his life to rescue, plunging themselves into the Roman water system to escape the lava, fire, and smothering ash of the volcano. Not good enough. They wouldn’t have escaped. So the author tries to present their ending as part of a myth of a man and woman who seemed to rise from the earth in escaping death from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Once again, Harris stepped away from the omniscient narrator to a hapless device to deal with an insoluble problem if he is to have a happy ending. So once again, I have read a book that was impressive in the process, but failed in the end.
I must say that Harris’“Fatherland” was a marvel of writing, setting and story telling. It is one of my favorite books.
“Pompeii” tells the story of Attilius, a Roman acquarius, sent to the Naples region to replace another acquarius, which is a waterworks engineer, who has disappeared. The book provides interesting detail about the Roman aqueducts and the men who maintain them. The story is set against the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the disappearance of Pompeii under the volcano’s hot ash. There are some very shaky transitions in the book. During the course of the story, Attilius discovers a corrupt entrepreneur has murdered the missing acquarius; Attilius falls in love with the entrepreneur’s daughter; the daughter has come to hate her greedy father; and Attilius is displayed as somewhat of a superman of intellect and morality with boundless luck fostering him, saving him from death and destruction.