Monday, October 04, 2004

Compulsory irony

"'The Chauci --' How old was he then? Twenty-four? It was his first campaign. He began again. 'The Chauci, I remember, dwelt on high wooden platforms to escape the treacherous tides of that region. They gathered mud with their bare hands, which they dried in the freezing north wind, and burnt for fuel. To drink they consumed only rainwater, which they collected in tanks at the front of their houses -- a sure sign of their lack of civilisation. Miserable bloody bastards, the Chauci.' He paused. 'Leave that last bit out.'" -- Pliny the Elder dictates, in Robert Harris's Pompeii.

It's not quite fair to call this bit the compulsory irony: that comes a couple of hundred pages earlier, when the villain tells the hero there is no investment sounder than property in Pompeii. But it does send two messages vital for the modern historical novelist:

i) I have done my research. Lots of it.

ii) Don't worry. I'm not going to take it seriously.

Harris is far more competent at this game than most people who attempt it, but it still feels faintly cynical.

[Pompeii, by Robert Harris (Hutchinson, 2003). Romance and thrills among the falling pumice, naturally, but also a surprising amount of engineering. If that is the sort of thing you like, this will be the sort of thing you love.]

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