Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Dictator - Robert Harris

Dictator is the concluding third of Harris's Cicero trilogy (the others being Imperium and Lustrum). Unsurprisingly, given that it purports to be the lost biography of the great man written by his slave and later freedman Tiro, it ends with Cicero's brutal murder on the orders of Octavian/Augustus in 43BC. It is therefore the volume that deals with the period of Roman history that most of us are most familiar with, the dictatorship of Julius Caesar, his assassination, and the subsequent battle for supremacy between Octavian, Mark Antony and the Zeppo Marx of the Triumvirate, poor old Lepidus.

The trilogy is an awesome achievement. Vast amounts of research must have been done, yet Harris wears his acquired learning lightly. He is especially good at playing off Cicero's philosophical writing against his political opportunism - at one stage or another Cicero manages to suck up to all the major players without once recognising his own duplicity. As a party politician myself, I couldn't help but place him in the Independent camp, a chancer who will jump aboard any passing bandwagon and insist - at very great length - how it was his idea in the first place.

The murder is a historical gift of an ending to all his machinations, betrayed by an off-the-cuff witticism.

Our true hero, however, is Tiro. It is he who sees and reports all the flaws in his employer's character whilst remaining doggedly loyal to him throughout their long, shared life. Tiro is how Harris deploys his masterful gifts as a storyteller. Dictator in itself is not as good as, say, An Officer and a Spy; it is infinitely better than The Ghost. The trilogy as a whole is probably Harris's greatest achievement in fiction.  His new novel, Conclave, doesn't appeal - can it possibly be as good as Paulo Sorrentino's The Young Pope, now showing on Sky Atlantic? Checking through the page of 'Also by' I notice I haven't read (or, frankly, heard of) The Fear Index. Maybe that is where I should head next.

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