Pompeii as an allegory for today's world

A British author's story of Romanmilitary dominance and vulnerabilityenlightens today's situation

By Alan Cowell  /  NY Times News Service , Kintbury, England

Tue, Nov 11, 2003 - Page 16

The Mickey Mouse ears, hers in white, his in black, were the clincher, the end of the dream.

Until he spied the couple wearing the ears for their wedding at Walt Disney World in Florida, Robert Harris, the best-selling British author, believed he could use Disney culture as a satirical parable for modern America.

But after 18 months of research and a growing sense that the book was not going to work, the sight of the outlandish ears in the Grand Floridian Hotel convinced him that his setting was beyond satire: Fiction was no match for reality.

"I could do Hitler's Germany," Harris said, referring to the theme of his first successful novel, Fatherland, published in 1992. "I couldn't do Walt Disney."

Then a remarkable thing happened, almost literally on the way to the forum.

In June 2000, Harris said, he saw a newspaper article about new research into the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD that alerted him to the latest scientific conclusions about the causes of the catastrophe. And the article, he said, gave him the idea that ancient Rome would provide a more appropriate setting for the book he wanted to write.

The result was Pompeii, a thriller that has become an instant best-seller in Britain.

Despite its setting, Harris says, the book is a modern novel, absorbing Roman characters, notably Pliny the Elder -- scholar-commander of the imperial fleet -- into a tale of imperial hubris that, after the invasion of Iraq, he depicts as particularly relevant to present-day America.

"The book can be read two ways, as a historical novel and, I hope, good story," he said in an interview. "But there's an allegorical interpretation."

"This is not an old Europe attack on America," he said, explaining why he sees a parallel between ancient Rome and modern Washington. "I do not hold that view. It's a more detached interest in the mindset of living in a nation so powerful that it's almost inconceivable to imagine that its dominance could ever come to an end."

So for Rome 79 AD, read the US post-Sept. 11, 2001.

Harris spoke in a conversation of several hours, first at his home in this village west of London, then over lunch in the nearby hamlet of Marsh Benham, traveling between them in an Aston Martin sport convertible -- the emblem of the success he has enjoyed from his books, one of which, Enigma, was made into a movie in 2001.

Since its publication in Britain in September, Pompeii has sold around 218,000 copies, Harris said.

Harris said he completed the book in June, after two years of research on volcanos and the aqueduct system that was as important to ancient Rome as the modern power grid is to the US. He worked in a study lined floor to ceiling with books and filled with likenesses of powerful men who have inspired his books. The screen-saver on his computer shows a representation of the ruins of Pompeii.

The book is a marked departure from previous Harris works set in the chill gloaming of mid-20th-century European history, an era that has fascinated him since he was a child, the son of a printer in the English midlands.

And it offered him a challenge. How, after all, do you build suspense when all your readers know the ending: the volcano erupts, Pompeii is destroyed?

Drawing on studies of Roman engineering and the creation of the aqueducts that transformed ancient Rome, Harris chose to tell his story through the figure of a young engineer, Marcus Attilius, sent to the Bay of Naples just before the eruption of Vesuvius to investigate a break in the 95km-long Aqua Augusta, the longest of the Roman aqueducts.

"This is really about technology and the threat from the natural world," he said. "And if you know what's going to happen, it can be more tense waiting for it to come."

But before the final historic cataclysm, the narrative meanders through a familiar modern landscape of sexual deviance and corrupted power, ambition and arrivisme.

Harris, 46, is a former TV and newspaper journalist who has devoted more and more of his time to book-writing since he moved away from London in 1993 to take up residence here with his wife, Gill Hornby, and their four children. In Britain he has been viewed as a political player from his days as a columnist. He was once seen as one of the most ardent supporters of Prime Minister Tony Blair. But that coziness has cooled.

"The Middle East was a running sore for the Roman Empire as well, and even when they completely destroyed Jerusalem they still found they were being sucked into it," he said. "It was this question of imperial overstretch. You do have to go back to the Roman Empire" to find a parable for a nation with such dominance as modern America.