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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Roberto Pazzi

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To purchase Conclave

Title: Conclave
Author: Roberto Pazzi
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001 (Eng. 2003)
Length: 231 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: Conclave - US
Conclave - UK
Conclave - Canada
Conclave - India
Conclave - France
Konklave - Deutschland
Conclave - Italia
Conclave - España
  • Italian title: Conclave
  • Translated by Oonagh Stransky

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Our Assessment:

B : fine elements and ideas, but narrative never gathers much momentum

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 22/2/2003 Dieter Bartetzko
Publishers Weekly A+ 12/5/2003 .
The Washington Post . 1/6/2003 M.O. Steinfels

  From the Reviews:
  • "Er ist eine hinreißend fabulierte, versponnene Geschichte darüber, was Glauben, Macht und Einsamkeit aus Männern machen." - Dieter Bartetzko, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "(T)his hilarious, sophisticated new novel by renowned Italian poet and novelist Pazzi (.....) As clever as Calvino, and funnier, Pazzi deserves a larger readership in this country." - Publishers Weekly

  • "A satiric fable written in the spirit of magic realism with all its surrealistic outcroppings (.....) The travails of the election mirror all of the church's current conflicts and contradictions. (...) Robert Pazzi's treatment of this imagined conclave is by turns amusing and horrifying and, given his satirical intent, even touching." - Margaret O'Brien Steinfelsm The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       When a pope dies the College of Cardinals gets together in the Vatican and the cardinals (with a decently-sized support staff) more or less seal themselves in until they elect a new leader ('Bishop of Rome') of the Catholic Church. Such a (near-present-day) conclave is the subject of Roberto Pazzi's novel.
       The cardinals have already been at it a for a few days when the novel opens, and while these things usually aren't settled until there have been quite a few rounds of voting, this particular conclave is, from early on, one where agreement or even just a general sense of direction (for the Church) is proving particularly elusive. In fact, the proceedings will be drawn out until Christmas -- for some four months -- and part of the fun Pazzi tries to have is in making this such a protracted proceeding. (Oddly, near the end, Pazzi has a cardinal take at least some satisfaction in: "governing the longest conclave in the history of the Church", when in fact it doesn't even come anywhere close: while no twentieth century conclave took anywhere near this long, earlier ones often have: the 1691 (s)election of Pope Innocent XII took 150 days, the 1740 (s)election of Benedict XIV some six months, while earlier ones dragged on much longer (with the thirteenth-century conclave that finally settled on Gregory X taking well over two years).)
       The novel begins with the focus on a single cardinal, Ettore Malvezzi, the archbishop of Turin, and he remains the heart and soul of the novel. He is presented as a no-hoper for the big promotion from the start, presumably also to suggest that he is a backseat neutral observer rather than one of those jostling for favor (and votes), and his calm, reflective (and insomniac) state makes him a decent guide to follow much of what happens (though he is not a true guide through the story, which also shifts to many scenes at which Malvezzi is not present).
       Malvezzi is particularly well-suited to being the character through which much of the action is seen also because:

This forced vacation, this state of suspension that is the conclave, has intensified an odd and relatively new habit of his: that of stepping outside himself and imagining the lives of others while forgetting about himself.
       So also Malvezzi is in some contact with his family -- a sister, and the nephew he dotes on -- while also showing some concern about his personal secretary Contarini, whose weaknesses of the flesh even the Vatican isolation can't temper much.
       There's a good deal of politicking -- beginning with many of the Italian cardinals getting together, trying to form a faction and voting bloc -- but Pazzi also particularly enjoys imagining the heightening sense of a removal from the real world that this enforced isolation leads to. A few of the cardinals die over the course of the proceedings, while two American ones shamefully try to abscond. Among the few things that help relieve tension is the on-site sauna they build.
       The real leap Pazzi takes is to have disaster visit the conclave, in the form of plagues of animals: rats, scorpions, even bats -- each of which in turn is dealt with by importing other animals (cats to catch the rats; chickens to deal with the scorpions; owls to do away with the bats),making for a busy (and smelly) menagerie. The return-to-nature madness reflects the conclave, too -- right down to the deliberations:
Indeed, the conclave has become nothing but the empty blathering of hens.
       Much of the precious Vatican art-work is also attacked by the animals (and other, supernatural powers ...), making for a visually striking image of many of the aspects of the Church collapsing right in front of the cardinal's eyes -- symbolism of the most overt sort.
       Pazzi only follows the ebb and flow of the voting fairly loosely, as it moves from the early days to, for example, an African surge, and then a Latin American one. For many rounds of voting Malvezzi gets a single vote -- with his fellow Italian cardinals suspecting that he is voting for himself -- but eventually he too rises into the middle of the pack of the handful of candidates that, at any point, are jostling for the position, even as none of them can stand out. Still, Malvezzi remains an unlikely contender -- and becomes less likely when he withdraws from the voting for a while, turning further inwards in his reflection (or perhaps losing his mind ?).
       Pazzi offers some decent invention and serio-comic touches with the animals over-running the Vatican, natural disasters, and the damaged art-work -- as well as with the various cardinals' (and underlings') foibles and characters. Unfortunately, the humor tends to be broad and simplistic: the American cardinals who tried to flee are only briefly described, for example, and among the few details that are offered is a scene of them stopping; "chomping on their chewing gum" -- an all too easy swipe with one broad stroke (and not too convincing, not without at least a bit more build-up or background).
       There isn't that much theological debate either, though at least the African contingent makes an interesting contrast (albeit one with a few too many 'native' special powers separating them from traditional Church-ways), but Pazzi ultimately gets down to considering some of the basic arguments of the Church's -- and the pope's -- role in the modern world. On the one hand, it's welcome that for the most part he doesn't ... pontificate; on the other hand, he doesn't go or get quite far enough either.
       Despite some decent invention and some interesting characters (and situations), Conclave proves too unfocussed -- and, surprisingly, quite dull. Not in the drawn-out sense of the repetitive voting of the conclave -- more of that might actually be welcome, as Pazzi barely manages to make it at all suspenseful -- but in far too many of the episodes, and certainly the whole.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 September 2016

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Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • Robert Harris' papal-election novel, Conclave
  • See Index of Italian literature
  • See Index of books dealing with Religion

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About the Author:

       Italian author Roberto Pazzi was born in 1946.

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© 2016-2022 the complete review

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