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Robert Harris: 'People ask if I'd write about Boris or Trump; and I say no, because it's meaningless'

The historical novelist spoke to TheJournal.ie about his new novel, The Second Sleep.

Robert Harris
Robert Harris

WHAT HAVE THE Romans ever said about us? How do the Middle Ages serve as a warning to modern society? And what can we learn from antisemitism in France in the late 19th century?

Between fake news, impending trade wars, Brexit, and refugee crises, the world seems complicated enough without having to be explained through the filter of a different era.

But for almost thirty years, the novelist Robert Harris has used historical settings to take stock of the modern world, crafting narratives in societies as diverse as Ancient Rome, Nazi Germany and a post-Stalin USSR to show us how we really are.

His latest novel, The Second Sleep, takes place in a religious world resembling medieval Britain, but with a twist – it’s set 800 years into the future, and follows the collapse of modern civilisation.

In an interview with TheJournal.ie, Harris explains that although he has had the idea for a novel set in a future world resembling the past for a number of years, he was inspired to write The Second Sleep because of a general feeling of anxiety and transience in society at the moment.

“There’s this sense of institutions being shaky of individuals being anxious of things in the air, of the centre not holding and things falling apart,” he says.

“I think that social media and technological evolution are a huge part of that and have sort of made us quite vulnerable.”

Brexit, Boris and Trump

Although The Second Sleep is set in Wessex – a reincarnated version of the 10th century Anglo-Saxon kingdom – it is ornamented with features from the 21st century, allowing the reader to view them with fresh eyes.

Its protagonist, the newly ordained priest Christopher Fairfax, sees iPhones, photographs and scientific instruments which have been lost for centuries after an apocalyptic event.

Fairfax arrives at a remote village, Addicott St George, to bury its recently deceased vicar, Father Lacy. But after a mysterious individual shows up at Lacy’s funeral, the young priest is driven to find out about his death and the history of society’s collapse, which has been largely unrecorded until then.

Much of the subsequent tension in the novel centres on Fairfax’s attempts to find out what caused the downfall of 21st century society, an investigation agitated by its forbidden nature: in the future, it is heretical to attempt to read about “scientism” and the past.

Harris explains that he required this 800-year distance to write comfortably about problematic aspects of the present day, and describes The Second Sleep as his most contemporary novel, something he feels unable to do without that distance:

People say, ‘Oh, are you tempted to write a novel about Boris Johnson or Donald Trump?’.
I say no, because it’s meaningless. There’s something so random and bizarre about it. We’re absolutely jammed up so close against the picture. We can’t stand back and see.

Asked about a potential apocalypse, he discusses the growth of cyber warfare and, in particular, focuses on the potential disruption of food and medical supplies after Brexit.

“A lot of the Brexit stuff is all about just-in-time supply and how easily supermarkets and food could run out,” he says.

“And you realise how highly tightly wound a mechanism a modern economy is, to support 7 million people living in London.”

‘A thin veneer spread over chaos’

Despite these modern influences, Harris, of course, made his name writing historical fiction, including Fatherland, set in a universe where Nazi Germany won World War II, and An Officer and a Spy, an epic re-telling of France’s Dreyfus Affair.

He describes the process of writing historical fiction as no different to writing contemporary fiction, saying that he still has to find how events in the past resonate with present-day society:

A historical novel is often just as much reflecting our times and the way we live, even it’s set in Ancient Rome, than a novel that’s set in central Dublin last summer.

Harris is also no stranger to writing about societies in a state of transition or on the brink of collapse.

Several of his novels are set during the Roman era or the Second World War (he describes the latter as a particular favourite and “the single greatest event in the history of humanity”).

In fact, he believes that Ireland’s neutrality and colonial past would make it a good setting for a World War II novel: “There’s just something quite haunting about the idea that all the stuff was taking place by close by.”

However, what interests him most are themes of power, control, and the way in which societies handle them. “Civilization is a thin veneer spread over chaos,” he says.

“That is the human condition and that endlessly fascinates me. Very civilized people can sit in a theatre watching Shakespeare and somebody cries ‘fire’, and suddenly everyone is clawing over one another and putting heels in each other’s faces as they run to the exit.

“I think the job of politicians, and the job of anyone in a position of authority, is to try to always bear in mind how fragile those systems are that we have.”

The writing cycle

So what’s next? A Roman Polanski-directed adaptation of An Officer and a Spy screened at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the top accolade, and is expected to go on general release later this year.

Harris himself aims to start his next novel early in 2020, the next edition in his annual January to September cycle of publication.

“At any one time I have four of five ideas,” he says.

“And around this time in the cycle, I sort of start trying to decide which is the strongest runner, because I like the business of writing and I’m getting on, so I can’t afford to waste a lot of time.”

He says he would like to write a short novel in future if he could, but finds that his current aim of 90,000 to 100,000 words gives him more space to explore his ideas.

“I’d be more than happy to do it if I could find the right subject to give it life in a short novel,” he says.

Given the genre-bending nature of The Second Sleep, one wouldn’t rule anything out with Harris. And even if he continues to produce the longer novels his readers are used to, it won’t be the end of the world.

  • The Second Sleep by Robert Harris is published by Hutchinson (€15.99) and available now.

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