Robert Harris: Eve of destruction

Robert Harris, who as a New Labour confidant learnt all about the transience of power and glory, has turned in his new novel to the most spectacular disaster of the ancient world. He tells Boyd Tonkin why we all live under the volcano
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Earlier this summer, after he had finished Pompeii, Robert Harris returned to the Bay of Naples and the settings for his first - though possibly not last - fictional excursion into the ancient world. At Cumae, he pondered the longest extant stretch of the Aqua Augusta: the astonishing Roman aqueduct that served the towns around the Bay, and also makes the plot of Pompeii flow. The novelist of imploding empires felt "tears in my eyes". He was moved - as writers have been for centuries - by the sight of "futility and abandonment" overtaking such toil and skill: "Buses and lorries run underneath; no one pays it any attention at all."

"It will pass away," Harris muses, sounding for a second like the sibyl who plays a cameo role in Pompeii (Hutchinson, £17.99). "Everything will pass away. Entropy. Nature will simply claim it back. At some point - who knows when that will be? - it will happen to America, even." At the climax of a thriller that (for once) no spoiler can ruin, the scholar-admiral Pliny the Elder gazes at the scorching waves of ash and gas ripping down Vesuvius and sees in nature's fires "the futility of human pretension".

Sitting in the sun-strafed garden of a West Berkshire gastro-pub, the decline and fall of empires might seem an abstract theme. History, however, has a habit of turning up unbeckoned. Spotting the waitress's Polish accent, Harris finds out that she's a philosophy graduate with decided views about the economic wreckage left by the collapse of Stalin's Cold War imperium.

It was this tormented aftermath that, five years ago, supplied a New Russian backdrop to Harris's third novel, Archangel. After Fatherland (with its cunning variations on the old premise of a victorious Hitler), and Enigma (which sprinkled stardust over the code-breakers of Bletchley Park), that novel rounded off a trilogy of ingenious and eloquent mid-century thrillers. Harris also remains the - happily inactive - biographer of John Le Carré, "the key writer of a phase of world history, the Cold War", with a licence to publish after the subject's death.

Together, previous novels and non-fiction have exorcised the "obsessions" of a war-shadowed Midlands youth: "I had written out what I felt about 20th-century politics." The novels' success tugged Harris out of the milieu of the well-connected commentator, and into the select band of blockbuster authors who credit readers with brains and curiosity. Harris (who enjoys his top-of-the-range motors) had accelerated from 6,000 - the initial print-run of Fatherland - to sales of 6 million in under a decade. At the same time, friends and contacts in New Labour seized control first of their party, then their country.

Here was a mere scribe - son of a printer, Nottingham-bred, Cambridge-educated, Newsnight- and Fleet Street-trained - who had soared close to the sun (or rather, the Sunday Times, where he wrote a prescient political column). Cue a nasty outbreak of green-tinged damnation-with-faint-praise.

Hacks waxed venomously lyrical about Harris's canal-side Victorian vicarage, with brother-in-law Nick Hornby popping in for a cup of sugar from the cottage next door while chum Peter Mandelson lounged on the sofa and worked the phone. Boris Johnson even dubbed Harris "New Labour's answer to Jeffrey Archer", before that tag might land you in the libel courts. Pompeii features a self-made tycoon called Ampliatus, who feeds a slave to man-eating eels just for kicks. Anyone who took the media chatter about Harris half-seriously during New Labour's days of pomp might wonder if the Kennet & Avon near Newbury is stocked with hungry morays.

Those hints of hubris never rang true; and the writer I meet is much the same - expensive wheels apart - as the student journo I remember from too many years ago. Nemesis, however (that great theme of Pompeii), has struck elsewhere. One event catalysed Harris's disenchantment with New Labour: the second sacking of Mandelson after the Hinduja passport affair in early 2001. Enraged, he compared that expulsion to the Dreyfus case. Recently, government equivocation over the Iraq war has, he believes, "poisoned the wells" of British politics. He even speaks warmly of the Tory leader-in-waiting, Oliver Letwin.

A furious philippic against Alastair Campbell last month indicted the spin maestro's "febrile world of assassination-by-headline". So would the biographer of Bernard Ingham care to perform the same favour for Campbell? "That should be done by some 25-year-old with the energy," Harris replies. "God in heaven, there's plenty to go on. If one was young again, it's all there ..."

Now Rome, and fiction, appeal far more than Westminster, and fact: "If you've tasted the fruits of fiction, the pleasure is such that it's very hard to give it up." Neither does the modern corridors-of-power novel attract: "When Trollope wrote fiction, Britain was the centre of the world. The City of London was where the masters of the universe dwelt. I'm afraid we're very small beer now."

That imaginative road towards the heart of contemporary might would seem to lead to America. Instead, it led Harris to Rome - via a curious detour. After his wartime trilogy, he planned a novel about the Disney Corporation and its empire of the senseless. Aiming to swap grey Berlin and Moscow for Florida and California, he saw Disney as "a totalitarian state with its own architecture, a kind of ideology, and an expansionist philosophy". Alas, the idea "had the dead hand of satire about it from the start".

A chance encounter with new findings on the destruction by rock and ash of Pompeii and Herculaneum in AD79 switched the site of his latest threatened empire; though not, perhaps, its soul. Harris had already spent a year researching Rome at its smug, can-do zenith when the calendar reached 11 September 2001. Within two days, he had published an essay hearing the unavoidable echoes and drawing the moral that "no civilisation is ever safe; history doesn't end".

Pompeii, it should be said, steers clear of sledgehammer ironies and glib analogies in its portrait of the profit-mad "boom town". Harris found in Rome "a wonderful parallel world", and thinks "we share 99 per cent of their intellectual DNA". But the reader, not the author, joins these dots. We follow a dedicated water engineer, Marcus Attilius, who arrives in the port of Misenum at the end of a sweltering August to discover why springs have dried and the aqueduct has ruptured. Never has a burst pipe, and the quest for a leak, prompted such suspense.

The monumental glories of Roman civil engineering cast their spell on Harris: "I thought that, if nothing else, in this book I'll get away from gladiators and emperors and write about what was in many ways the most remarkable thing about the Romans." He draws his hero as a no-nonsense technician, endorses Pliny's conviction that "God is man helping man", and insists that "the Roman empire was built on hydraulic cement". What entranced him was the Stoic interregnum that came between the decline of traditional piety and the rise of Christianity; that brave and naked age when - and here Harris quotes Flaubert - "the old gods had died and Christ was yet to come".

Roman aquatic artistry ensnares the reader of Pompeii much as the Ultra ciphers did in Enigma. Attilius unravels a water-supply scam that recalls Polanski's Chinatown. Meanwhile, the unflappable scholar Pliny, and the charismatic monster Ampliatus, embody the grave and grubby sides of empire. As the action rattles on towards catastrophe, the author opts - as his genre demands - for plot twists over nuances of character. "I stand by the supremacy of narrative and the novel of sensation," he says, but admits: "Ampliatus teeters on the brink of taking over the novel, but you can't really stop and explore that because the story compels you forward."

Pompeii must deliver calamity in place of closure. In spite of this destiny, the tension seldom slackens. The 80 virtuoso pages that follow the "double boom" heard at 1pm on 24 August offered Harris "a great liberation from plot". Besides, modern investigations overturn most of what we think we know about the volcanic eruption. Continuous showers of pumice over 18 hours drove the citizens of the bay towns from home before the deadly tides of ash and gas came. This day-long horror makes a nonsense of the Victorian notion epitomised in Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii: of heedless sinners struck down on the spot.

"Suddenly, moral choices could be made," says Harris. "People could run away; they could come back; they could sit it out. Pliny himself decides to sail into it. It becomes a much more interesting natural disaster."

Harris now views it as "a story like the Titanic, of technological civilisation overwhelmed by the power of nature". Far away, the wounded American giant plunges blindly on. Near at hand, an ominously broiling summer sends a plague of wasps to dive-bomb our plates. And the fate of Pompeii whispers that triumphs and troubles, great and small, will pass: "I think that idea possibly has more resonance now than at any time in human history."

Biography

Robert Harris was born in 1957 in Nottingham, and grew up in the city and in Leicestershire. He studied English at Cambridge, worked as a BBC reporter on Panorama and Newsnight, and joined the Observer as political editor in 1987. He became a columnist for the Sunday Times and wrote non-fiction that included Selling Hitler, The Making of Neil Kinnock, Good and Faithful Servant and - with Jeremy Paxman - A Higher Form of Killing. In 1992, he published his first novel, Fatherland; followed by Enigma (1995) and Archangel (1998); his fiction has now been translated into more than 30 languages. Pompeii appears next week from Hutchinson, and will be the subject of an ITV South Bank Show on Sunday 7 September. Robert Harris lives with his wife, Gill Hornby, and their four children in West Berkshire.

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