Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on José Saramago, Jacek Hugo-Bader and William Rees-Mogg.

Cain by José Saramago

Nobel prize-winning author José Saramago's last novel, Cain, is published posthumously in English (Saramago died in June 2010). Ian Sansom in the Guardian notes that Cain is "a rewriting of the biblical story...Cain gets to enjoy his endless exile, ambling aimlessly through a number of other biblical episodes and scenes." Cain concludes from his travels that God must be mad. "[T]he only alternative explanation -one already mooted in Saramago's Gospel - is that God might be 'evil pure and simply'", writes Ángel Gurría-Quintana in the Financial Times.

Sansom praises the novel as a "fitting conclusion" to Saramago's career: "Cain's is the story of mankind, and Saramago was one of those authors much concerned with the plight of mankind". While Gurría-Quintana observes that, "Saramago takes great pleasure in pointing out the gratuitous cruelty of the Old Testament's God, and the idiocy of the priapic patriarchs who committed atrocities in his name."

Allan Massie writes in the Scotsman that "Every page of this novella, translated with a fluent and light touch by Margaret Jill Costa, has its charm. Every page raises difficult questions. That over the centuries we have found no satisfying answer to these questions...doesn't make them less compelling."

White Fever by Jacek Hugo-Bader

Based upon a road trip across Siberia, Polish journalist Jacek Hugo-Bader's White Fever is about "a society in moral and social breakdown" reports Luke Harding in the Guardian. It also includes "plenty of unexpectedly joyous moments",

White Fever, Harding argues, shows that after Communism's fall, "Russia has failed to come up with a new national idea...While some Siberians have turned to mysticism in search of meaning, others cling to the old Soviet faith ... The strength of this book is that it dwells on human stories that lie outside the parameters of conventional newspaper reporting." Harding also praises the translation from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones as "pitch perfect".

Carl Wilkinson writes in the Financial Times that White Fever is "a funny, enlightening and thoroughly engaging piece of reportage. Hugo-Bader eschews grand descriptions in favour of brilliant vignettes of his encounters with the people who live there." "

Memoirs by William Rees-Mogg

William Rees-Mogg has been editor of the Times, vice-chairman of the BBC and "has known every British Prime Minister since Anthony Eden...and most Popes and American Presidents," notes Allan Massie in the Scotsman. Peter Preston's review in the Guardian describes Mogg's memoirs as "thought-provoking...a voice from the recent past still resonant beyond the columns he writes for the Mail on Sunday and the Times."

"Most of the main political questions between the 1950s and the present are examined dispassionately and lenient judgments pronounced," finds Paul Johnson in the Spectator. "What distinguishes his memoirs is a lack of malice. There are no unpleasant stories". Mogg has a "distaste for sharp personal criticism. This gives his book magnanimity, to put it mildly, but it makes for dull reading." By contrast, Massie finds that "There are many amusing anecdotes and observations...The passages about his family background, education and home life are full of charm and interest."

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End of an orator: the ancient Roman machinations of Robert Harris's Dictator

Dictator, the final installment in the "Cicero trilogy", finds the great lawyer exiled from Rome.

If ever a Roman was lucky enough to win a great military victory without losing too many of his men, he could return to the city in triumph. He would be paraded through the streets alongside placards proclaiming his successes, trophies and spoils, prisoners and horses. Cicero, who was never one for frivolous excess, triumphed in a different way. It was just a pity that his kind of triumph was also his undoing.

At the beginning of Dictator, the much-anticipated final instalment in Robert Harris’s “Cicero trilogy”, the great orator and lawyer has been exiled from Rome. What Cicero considered to be his great triumph – the quelling of a conspiracy to overthrow the Republic in 63BC – was all his enemies had needed to get him out the way. Illegally, he had put the conspirators to death without trial. A protracted absence from Rome was just the first way in which he would pay for acting so precipitously.

We see him through the eyes of Tiro, his trusty secretary, who is a delightfully subjective biographer of his master’s last 15 years. Tiro has had plenty of time to discover that, for all his kind-heartedness, Cicero can be incredibly tiresome. So when Cicero threatens to kill himself rather than endure the ignominy of his new life in exile, Tiro stands aside, as if to let him get on with it. “He couldn’t stand the sight of others’ blood,” he says, “let alone his own.”

Self-pitying and incredulous how a man of his intellect could fall from such a high status so quickly, Cicero grows his beard and awaits news from Rome, where the ruthless demagogue Publius Clodius destroys his house on the luxurious Palatine Hill, replaces it with a temple to Liberty and generally dispenses with all justice.

All of which makes this novel just as thrilling but altogether more sorrowful than the first two books. Grim inevitability lurks in the background of every page, as all that Cicero loves most about the Roman Republic goes to pot. When he returns to the city the situation grows still worse: the “triumvirate” alliance uniting Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus begins to crack and the politicians hurtle into civil war, which dominates the second, busier half of the novel.

The events and political upheavals of these years are some of the most complicated in ancient history. Undaunted, Harris remains impressively faithful to the ancient sources, embellishing the gaps with terse dialogue, exhilarating exchanges and witty observations of some of the lesser-known senators.

Tiro is an indispensable guide, proving himself a more objective historian than he is a biographer of his master. Indeed, there are times when he is just as conscientious about describing the significance of events as a modern-day historian would be: “Even allowing for a degree of exaggeration, it was plain from the Commentaries that Caesar had enjoyed an astonishing run of military successes.” Not that this does anything to distract, as Harris skilfully navigates these fraught years in Cicero’s life. His novel often feels like the best kind of narrative history, at once frenetic but measured in its assessment of the characters who brought the Republic to an end.

Although it is true that Cicero is one of the most documented figures of antiquity, capable of providing a fair self-portrait through his own letters, it can be hard to differentiate between how he saw himself and how he was seen. This is where Dictator triumphs. Although it is hard to blame him, given the crises that unfurl between Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) and Mark Antony, Cicero becomes a caricature, ever certain of his own greatness, ignorant of how unhinged he must look to everyone around him. And yet, it is impossible not to warm to him, especially as the darkest days draw near. He was, historically no less than in this novel, a loving father, a defiant believer in a cause, an excellent writer and public speaker, and an intellectual.

Harris’s trilogy leaves one pondering: was Cicero born at the wrong time, or precisely the right time? Without setting himself up to challenge the inevitable return to one-male rule in Rome, he would never have found the fame and legacy he so yearned for, but nor would he have suffered the painful demise that Harris charts so spectacularly. Catapult him back two centuries earlier into the Republic, and his life would have been far more pleasant – pleasant enough for us never to have heard a thing about it.

Daisy Dunn’s “Catullus’ Bedspread: the Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet” will be published next year by William Collins

Dictator by Robert Harris is out now from Hutchinson (£20, 464pp)

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror