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I wanted to like the book, and I tried, but couldn't quite succeed. The title POMPEII is deceptive. Edward Bulwer-Lytton in THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII gives us much more of a fictional feel for the Roman city that was completely covered by volcanic ash in A.D. 79, even though his novel conforms more to Victorian than contemporary reading tastes. Bulwer-Lytton gives us what Margaret Drabble describes as "panoramic splendors," a fully fleshed out peopling of Pompeii just before its death. Harris's 2003 creation has but little of Pompeii in it, mainly represented by four of the city's officials, an arrogantly pompous freedman, and the freedman's daughter, all within the confines of one house.
The daughter, Corelia, seems to be thrown in to make a semblance of a love interest, albeit a miserly one, as she is associated with the fictional protagonist of the the story, Attilius. I can't recall when I last read of a major character's romance as undeveloped as this one. Boy and girl meet, see each other again a couple of times in Platonic situations, and then appear together briefly here and there, we are told or given to understand, as full fledged lovers. The reader is not given any reason or detailed scene to show how these two people from completely different positions in life fell in love. Compared to the paucity of information concerning this love affair, Tacitus could have been named Loquacious.
This is true of other parts of the fictional account. The two most developed characters are the real-life Pliny the Elder and the fictional Ampliatus, the latter drawn from the fictional vulgarly rich parvenu ex-slave, Trimalchio, of the "Cena Trimalchionis" in Petronius's SATYRICON. Pliny is called "admiral" of the Roman fleet at Misenum, the western end of the Bay of Naples; the Roman title would have been "prefect," the word "admiral" coming into European languages later from the Arabic. It is from the actual letters of Pliny the Younger, who as a young boy lived with his uncle at Misenum, and the preserved notes of Pliny the Elder, who died in this very catastrophe, that we get eye-witness accounts of Vesuvius's A.D. 79 eruption.
Ampliatus is the counterpoint to the sophisticated and wise Pliny. Cunning, crude, and vicious, Ampliatus is the evil that plagues Attilius in the story line. Punishing a slave for an imputed slight offense by throwing him into the water to be devoured by a moray eel, Ampliatus admits to himself that he was partly motivated by a desire to see if an eel's meat tasted any sweeter after feasting on human flesh. What we see of Pompeii takes place mainly in a house owned by Ampliatus where he has discussions with the four top Roman officials of Pompeii, craven, self-indulgent puppets who are completely under his thumb.
The plot is minimal. The engineer in charge of the aqueduct serving the Naples Bay area disappears, and Attilius is sent from Rome to replace him. Corax, foreman of the aquaduct workers, despises him, and shows it continually and menacingly, although we never get a satisfying explanation for his hatred. Attilius discovers that the water pressure from the aqueduct is getting weaker in a number of bay areas, including one of Ampliatus's grand villas located at Misenum, and finally the water just stops. Pompeii, however, still has all the water it could desire, and Attilius goes to Pompeii to persuade officials there to approve stopping their water supply for a while so as to give him and his crew time to repair what he has deduced must be a blockage.
There's a lot of telegraphing in the novel. Assumptions seem to come out of nowhere; that is, no previous basis is set. When Ampliatus is unsuccessful in trying to bribe Attilius, the latter asks him about the previous aqueduct engineer, "Did you have an arrangement with him that no one knew about?" Attilius had found the papers left by his predecessor in a messy condition, so he wonders if the accounts "were in such a mess, might it be because they had been tampered with?" My own papers being quite messy (as my wife is always telling me), and knowing a number of other people who keep messy offices, I find it difficult to leap from messiness to tampering.
After the volcano starts spewing, Pliny asks Attilius, "The Villa Calpurnia is threatened?" The question hardly seems to justify Attilius's thought, "What was wrong with the old man? Had drink and age entirely dulled his wits?" Yet a few paragraphs further Attilius sees a need to "order his own thoughts, but it was hard to speak coherently." These sentences taken together seem to me like hasty writing. A bit later Attilius reflects to himself "how odd it was, the chain of events and circumstances that had brought him to this place, at this time." This is commonplace writing; we could all examine every event in our lives this way without making an extraordinary issue over it. Isn't it odd, the chain of events that brought me to be reviewing this book, at this time, or you to be reading this review?
In the middle of the eruption, Attilius asks a wealthy Roman if roofs in Pompeii were flat or pitched, and the man says they are flat: "They form terraces. You know -- for the views across the bay." "Ah, yes, thought Attilius -- the famous views. Perhaps if they had spent a little less time gazing out to sea and rather more looking over their shoulders at the mountain behind them, they might have been better prepared." That fatuous remark begs the question, prepared for what? There had never been an eruption of Vesuvius in the lifetimes of the residents, so why should they have been spending their time looking back at the mountain? Again, I find the story underdeveloped and the writing overly hasty.
Harris has obviously done a good job of research on volcanoes and aqueducts, and it shows. And it does make the story more interesting to use Pliny's words on the eruption of Vesuvius almost step by step to give the story more weight. The book is already selling well and getting very good reviews. I'm probably being too fussy when I expect the fictional aspect in a story like this to keep up with the documentary material, which, of course, is the book's raison d'etre. If the period and subject are your cup of tea (and they are certainly mine), then reading this book can be worthwhile. Just don't expect to be enthralled by the fictional sinews that bind the parts together.
Reviewed by Eugene Aubrey Stratton, November 2003
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