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Under the Volcano
By Margaret Black

By Robert Harris
Random House, 274 pages, $24.95

Those expecting the swift, high-octane excitement of prior Robert Harris thrillers will doubtless feel that Pompeii barely shifts out of first gear, and those who read historical fiction can justifiably accuse him of offering up a standard menu of beastly Roman dissipation and cruelty. Only readers dulled by heavy medication could possibly credit the ridiculous romance that Harris has tossed into his plot, and furthermore, we all know that Vesuvius is going to blow its lid. It’s going to completely bury all those rich merchants, wily whores, corrupt officials, miserable slaves, burly gladiators and scratching dogs.

So why did I like this book? Partly because this winter has gone on so bloody long and I’m sick of being cold in Albany. Pompeii, bless its heated heart, takes place during four sweltering days in late August 79 a.d. But mostly it’s because the hero of the tale, Marcus Attilius, is so wonderfully unlikely. He’s an engineer—earnest, scientific, unimaginative, humorless, and not in great shape physically. Then too, there’s the book’s true heroine: not the anachronistic young Corelia (whose very contemporary form of female feistiness made me think of Shrek’s bride-to-be), but the monumental Aqua Augusta, that elegant marvel of Roman construction, the long, sinuous aqueduct that carries fresh water from the mountains of Campania to all the cities around the Bay of Naples.

Marcus Attilius is an aquarius, one of the engineers who maintain the Roman Empire’s water system. He has been sent to take charge of the Aqua Augusta because the previous aquarius has inexplicably disappeared. It’s urgent to maintain the Aqua Augusta because it supplies not only the rich pleasure villas and cities around the bay, but also, more importantly, the needs of the imperial fleet, headquartered at Misenum under the command of Gaius Plinius. Yes, that’s the historical Pliny the Elder whose detailed description of the eruption of Vesuvius (which caused his death) will cap his extraordinarily prolific career of recording observations about natural phenomena.

The instant Attilius arrives in Misenum, he meets unusual hostility on the part of his work crew, but worse comes when water suddenly ceases to flow along the aqueduct. Somewhere along its vast length there has to be serious damage. The town reservoir is consequently beginning to empty, and local wells and springs are drying up. Attilius quickly deduces where the break or block probably has occurred and promises Pliny that in return for a swift boat to take him and his crew to Pompeii, he will achieve temporary repairs within 24 hours, before Misenum’s reservoir runs dry.

Once in Pompeii, Attilius must maneuver through the dangers posed by his crew, various corrupt politicians, and a particularly scabrous land developer, whose daughter Corelia provides the above- mentioned romantic interest. Simultaneously Attilius must try to discover what happened to his predecessor. When he locates the break in the Aqua Augusta, Attilius must speedily effect the necessary repairs before water is again released into the aqueduct. Moment by moment, of course, we readers know, although no one else does, that Vesuvius is about to erupt. When the author has Attilius wandering about the volcano’s slopes, and even across the summit, it’s incredibly nerve-wracking even if it does seem like carrying the flickering candle into the haunted attic. From Attilius’s point of view, however, his actions are not unreasonable. He has reason to believe his predecessor has climbed the mountain, and he also knows that Spartacus used Vesuvius as a safe haven during his slave revolt. Unlike us, Attilius doesn’t know that Vesuvius is a volcano, although he’s getting suspicious.

From the first boom of the eruption until the mountain calms two days later, the tale gathers speed and urgency until we’re as breathless and exhausted as the thousands of people trying to escape. Harris makes viscerally real all the manifestations of being under the volcano. So much ash and pumice rains down on land and sea that oars cannot bring any pressure to bear to move ships, and rudders are useless. People stagger through 3 and 4 feet of styrofoamlike rubble, trying to escape. Even more horrifying than the missilelike rocks that succeed the ash are the pyroclastic flows of superheated gas that repeatedly roll down the mountain and even out to sea, killing everything in their path.

Given all that Harris does extremely well, in addition to his gripping account of the eruption—his excellent evocations of Roman organization, Roman building, Roman ships, and most important Roman water management—it’s a shame that he didn’t take more trouble with his story. After setting up Attilius as a different kind of hero, a man who works with his brain, Harris then fails to give Attilius opportunities to exercise that intelligence. By the time Attilius is repairing the aqueduct, Harris has fallen back on the reliable clichés of physical effort and physical courage being the measure of heroism. Because the author makes his principal villain, Ampliatus, so ludicrously evil in his personal dealings, Harris undercuts the rather interesting ambiguities regarding his business corruption. Ampliatus, who has made his fortune rebuilding Pompeii after an earthquake, builds baths. They are, as he says, “the foundation of civilization. . . . [they] instilled the triple disciplines of cleanliness, healthfulness, and strict routine. Was it not to feed the baths that the aqueducts had been invented in the first place? Had not the baths spread the Roman ethos across Europe, Africa, and Asia as effectively as the legions . . . ?” More of this and fewer rapes of old women would have made a better book, but Pompeii still manages to provide some historical tidbits as well as a truly terrifying you-are-there experience of the famous Vesuvian eruption.

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