Friday, March 6, 2009


Pompeii: A Novel
© 2003 , Robert Harris
274 pages

In May 2007 I read Fatherland, an mystery book set in an alternate history setting in which Nazi Germany prevailed in World War 2 and the S.S. Holocaust is largely unknown. Last week I read Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome, by the same author, and commented that I would not expect two books in such different settings to be from the same author. I enjoyed Imperium tremendously, though, and this week continued with Pompeii. Pompeii, you may know, was a city depopulated, partially destroyed, and partially preserved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. I am not giving anything away here: it is fairly common knowledge, and the book itself has an erupting volcano on the cover.

The book is set four days before the eruption, in the general region surrounding Pomepii. The book holds a map in the beginning that shows the ancient towns that dotted the countryside, along with old roads and -- more related to the plot -- the old aqueduct. The book is told in the third person and is chiefly concerned with Marcus Attilus, the new aquarius of the region -- replacing the old aquarius, who stopped believing in the zodiac. An aquarius is someone who is concerned with the Aqueduct, and Attilus is very concerned with his. His family have worked with the aqueducts for at least a century, and the duct to which he has been assigned has stopped running -- and the man whose job he now holds has vanished. Although Attilus is the central character of the story, Harris also takes time to depict a local businessman and Pliny the Elder, among other characters.

For most of the book, there are several dramas unfolding. Attilius is anxious to find out why the water flow has been broken, but he can't resist poking around and trying to find out where the former aquarious has vanished to. His questions draw the ire of a local businessman, who is an ex-slave and apparently the progenitor of John Gotti. Much of the action takes place in Pompeii, and Harris paints a detailed picture of it, rendering a breathing city. What is eerie is that while I read about the half-finished baths and the graffiti on the walls, I know in the back of my head that these details have been preserved by the lava. All of the characters know that something is going to happen: they can smell sulfur, hear the rumbles of the Earth.

Although a friend of mine who enjoys Harris as much as I prefers Imperium over this, I am not so sure. While set in the same general time period as Imperium and being about more anonymous characters, it has an interesting quality all of its own. It read very well until after the actual eruption: it is more difficult to render the devastating eruption of a volcano than it is what passed before. I can't really picture what it was like in my head. I enjoyed the book immensely. Harris has earned my devotion, and I will read the other two books he has published.

To end, a picture from Civilization III that I took many months ago. I titled it "Tempting Fate".

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