Saturday, March 13, 2010

From the end…

Last week a friend passed on to me a battered paperback of the Robert Harris book, Pompeii, published in 2002. I have an interest in the Roman Empire and enjoy historical novels, so was happy to get the book, despite being warned that it was for the most part a quick and interesting read, but nothing to get excited about. As it turned out, my friend’s brief one sentence capsule review was accurate.

Harris’s novel is about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius just outside ancient Pompeii in the year 79 AD. Pompeii was severely affected, but what is often left out of the story is the magnitude and breadth of the destruction; the city of Herculaneum, as well as Stabiae were also destroyed and the total number of people killed was between 10,000 and 25,000. The novel begins two days before the eruption of the volcano and follows an engineer who is trying to trace a problem in the great Aqua Augusta aqueduct which supplies water to eight cities through 96 kilometers of the countryside around Naples. As we guess from the very beginning, the problem with the flow of water along the aqueduct stems from the rumbles of Mount Vesuvius. The engineer, Marcus Attilius races from one geological anamoly to another in his search for an answer, realizing little by little that the natural signs are looking ominous, and they all point to Mount Vesuvius. Only an hour or two before the actual eruption does Attilius realize that the aqueduct is the least of their worries.

There is little characterization in this novel, and all but one is a stock character we’ve seen a hundred times before in previous ‘page-turners.’ The hero (Attilius, the engineer) is your typical ‘good man’ who does all the right things, protects the weak and defies the brutal, and naturally falls in love with an ill-treated daughter he can’t have. Nothing new here, and it could easily have been left out. Aside from Pliny, the natural philosopher and famed writer, characters in the novel are all either black or white and cut from thin cardboard. Somehow (perhaps because he has the historical figure as a basis) Harris does well in painting a more layered and complex picture of Pliny.

The best part of the novel comes in the small details of Roman life and culture in 79 AD. There are details in abundance about the food and wine, the lechery, the graffiti, and one horrible scene of punishment when a slave is fed to moray eels. I have heard criticism of the book’s historical accuracy, but I can’t quite agree with that complaint. The architecture, the manner of dining, facts about the Aqua Augusta, and characteristics of Pliny the Elder all bear the stamp of authenticity. These parts of the book all stir vivid images of what life was like for Romans of 79 AD.

There are no surprises about the ending of Pompeii. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius set off a firestorm of poisonous vapors and molten debris lasting two days, engulfing and burying the surrounding area and its population. Though not from the time of Pompeii’s destruction, these earlier words of Pliny have survived: “From the end spring new beginnings.”

Perhaps not a great book, but Harris’s Pompeii, apart from a few distractions tells an interesting story.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America