Robert Harris’s 2007 The Ghost was a political roman a clef par excellence – in its unflattering picture of Tony Blair it piled outlandish premise on outlandish event, until it came to present an astonishing lifelike image of the man.
His latest, Lustrum, is a different beast – still about politics, but the politics of the dying days of the Roman Republic. It’s a well-trodden tale, with Cicero at its heart, and the giant characters of Pompey, Caesar and Cato stalking around – familiar at least in broad outline to anyone with a touch of classical history in their education.
As far as we know, it is true to life in outline, and makes reasonable deductions about the points of controversy, and the motivations of the main characters, so there is at one level no real surprises in the novel, despite its thriller-like opening with a mutilated body.
What it is, above all, is a superbly well-told, gripping tale, presented to us by a classic narrator, Tiro, Cicero’s slave secretary – a man who has his own hopes, dreams and passions, yet whose life is entirely centred around his master’s. He’s that unfashionable thing these days, an honest, intelligent, caring narrator – and the Cicero he, and we, see is true to the nature of the political man that history has handed down to us – intelligent, skilled, marked by the classic flaw of a “New Man” eager to play up his own importance, yet ultimately buffetted and scarred by forces beyond his control.
Politics of our own day, as the latest British polls show, is turbulent, fast-moving and often surprising, but Rome was in another class of mercurial altogether – a single clever speech, a quip even, could swing the Senate, or a huge mob – Prime Minister’s Questions has nothing on this.
Harris is interesting in his treatment of the women characters. In a story primarily set in the Senate, in the senator’s studies and the streets, they can’t be central, and Tiro doesn’t often see them in detail, but the portrait of Terentia, Cicero’s wife, no paragon of virtue, but an intelligent, strong-minded, often independent woman is an attractive one.
In the shadow of The Ghost, it is tempting to read this as yet another view on British politics. Yet if there’s one real lesson from it – which applies very clearly to the present moment, although the first man to which it should apply, Gordon Brown or David Cameron, is not yet known, is the dictum attributed to Enoch Powell – “all political careers end in failure”.
Given that as I write this I’m preparing to stand for the Westminster parliament, I might take that as depressing -but I’d rather take away a slightly different Ciceronian message – that you’ve got to try, and put your heart and soul into the effort. And be prepared to fail…