Reviewed by David Maclaine
The moral landscape of Hersey's 1972 novel The Conspiracy, set in Emperor Nero's Rome, resembles that of a recent and justly acclaimed foreign film, The Lives of Others, in which East German secret police monitor the daily life of a writer who has come under suspicion. Hersey's novel is set in much the same mental world of spymasters, relentless in their efforts to uncover "subversion," boring in upon artists who would prefer to keep their heads down in a world dominated by tyranny. Here, too, artists discover that in the long run neutrality is not an option. In this case, the inquisition's drivers are Tigellinus, head of Nero's Praetorian Guard, and his not-quite-so-enthusiastic colleague Paenus, Tribune of Secret Police. Their targets are an assortment of Roman nobles and two of the most prominent writers of the day: the veteran playwright and philosopher Seneca, Nero's former tutor, and the younger poet Lucan, who chafes at the idea that political caution may require the sacrifice of his artistic ideals.
Hersey, a Pulitzer Prize winner, was up to the task of constructing a gripping novel entirely from letters and other documents exchanged by the spymasters or intercepted from their victims. His novel skillfully depicts an assortment of historical figures, including the emperor himself. If you've read Quo Vadis you'll recognize a slightly different view of an infamous party around the lake in Nero's garden. These snapshots of Roman life are interwoven with issues of universal importance. What is the responsibility of an artist in a world in which unchecked power has usurped old traditions and tramples the rule of law? That question is tossed back and forth in the pages of The Conspiracy. Hersey's characters ponder whether a pervasive system of secret surveillance, designed to prevent dangerous plots, may not create the very conspiracies it sets out to detect. It was an apt question when the novel was written, during Nixon's first term, and is even more urgent today. (1972, 274 pages)More about The Conspiracy at Powell's Books or Amazon.com