jPrevious work by Joseph O’Connor has been instrumental in demonstrating that modern historical fiction can mean narratives of ideas and the state of the nation rather than works of populist nostalgia. Writing about espionage and resistance in World War II is brave in this vein — there are plenty of gold-lettered tales of gay espionage sold to men in airports — but anyone who buys my dad’s house with that expectation will find himself expected to think as well as he imagined.
Like 2019 shadowMy father’s house is woven through the historical record. There was indeed an Irish priest living in Vatican City involved in running an escape line for resistance fighters, escaping POWs and Jewish people from Nazi-run Rome, and his collaborators share names and biographical details with the characters in this book. O’Connor states that his characters “should not be relied upon by biographers or researchers” and that the sequences “which present themselves as original documents are works of fiction”. The challenge for the writer is to balance the chaotic improbability of what actually happened with the structural demands of the novel.
O’Connor achieves this balance in part through strong enough characterization and voices that we eagerly follow her through the uncertainty, the mundane and the disillusioned as well as the high-stakes stakes. The novel is built from the Reverend Hugh O’Flaherty’s narration of the present close in the third person, a technique that historical fiction owes to Hilary MantelInterspersed with fictional interviews conducted for a radio program in 1963 with seven people running the escape line under Hugh’s direction. They all have distinct and often very funny voices: they are Irish, English, Italian, aristocrats, shopkeepers.
O’Flaherty’s movements around Vatican City and Rome are choreographed in the hours leading up to the “Rendimento”, the movement of a large number of hidden refugees and resistance fighters outside the Nazi-held city. On Christmas Eve and under the special watch of Gestapo leader Paul Hauptmann, O’Flaherty needs to distribute large sums of money to the people in hiding and organize their escape from the city. The plan depends on his knowledge of secret passages, tunnels, and backstreets, and on the competence and integrity of the Inner Circle, their collaborators, and their double agents throughout Rome, all operating under the immediate threat of torture, death, and retaliation. There are near-deaths, scenes of intense physical suffering and heightened danger, especially as we also see excerpts from Hauptmann’s Evening. So far, it feels a lot like a thriller, but O’Connor refuses to be voyeuristic or titillated. Violence is transmitted indirectly through the destruction of soft pianos, and the appearance of a full set of teeth.
This novel also contains other works and broader interests. It is a choral book in two ways: the group meets as a choir and rehearses chamber music to provide an aural cover for whispered plans and communications, and the structure of the novel employs the idea of part singing, and each character has a voice and melody, which is more the sum of the parts. O’Connor plays with the possibilities of multiple narrators, also considering plurality, reliability, and historical record: is the group of witnesses more accurate than the single narrator? With an Irish priest in Vatican City at the center of the novel, there are also pressing questions about the idea and ethics of neutrality, especially for the Church. Hugo recalls his shameful folly in seeing “all political systems are more or less alike…the chatter of monkeys, designed to keep little chimpanzees down”. He learns from the occupation of Rome that “neutrality is the most extreme attitude of all: without it no despotism can flourish.” Thus, like other imaginary priests before him – Graham Green comes to mind, but there is also a reference to TS ElliottMurder in the Cathedral – O’Flaherty chooses between his vow of obedience and his conscience, every hour of every day until the end, where the final twist is satisfying theological.