Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Silva Is Gold

Daniel Silva has a new hardcover, The Messenger, headed for the bestseller list, but his previous books are cheaper and take up less room in your luggage. Here's what I said about two recent efforts:

When a bomb at the Austrian Wartime Claims office leaves its chief investigator close to death at the start of A Death in Vienna, art restorer and secret Israeli intelligence agent Gabriel Allon is persuaded to put aside his work on a Bellini altarpiece in Venice to go to Vienna to investigate.

It turns out that a leading suspect is Erich Radek, the Nazi officer in charge of wiping out all evidence of the Holocaust in the last days of World War II, now living under a different name, in charge of a prestigious business-development group in Vienna. Reading his own mother's account of her time in concentration camps, Allon realizes that Radek is the man who almost had her killed, and he plunges into the chase with extra vigor.

Various groups of ex- and current Nazis want Allon to lay off, but they've got the wrong boy. Art isn't the only thing he restores: He takes a stab at justice and human decency as well. And Silva keeps the pot from boiling over with cool brilliance.

Early In The Confessor, Pope Paul VII, the elfin Venetian outsider finally chosen after much in-fighting to succeed Pope John Paul II, is having one of his dreaded weekly lunches with the extremely political Cardinal Marco Brindisi, his secretary of state. When the pope tells the cardinal that he plans to open all secret Vatican archives pertaining to the Holocaust, Brindisi bristles and points out that Pope John Paul II already did something similar in his 1998 study "We Remember."

" `We Remember?' " the pope says. " `It should have been called We Apologize--or We Beg Forgiveness. It did not go far enough, neither in its soul-searching nor in its search for the truth. It was yet another insult to the very people whose wounds we wished to heal."

This is an important scene, because Silva has more in mind here than just using up a lot of research into the ever-popular fictional form of Vatican office politics, or jumping on the current bandwagon of pope bashing. He intends to make his Pope Paul VII not just a colorful piece of moving scenery but a major part of the story--a real man with a history and a heart, whose actions jump-start the narrative and whose motives are personal and ecumenical.

Many books and plays have questioned Pope Pius XII's silence and lack of action during the Holocaust. Silva goes beyond easy assumptions, using newly uncovered documents to create a darker scenario. That darkness is increasingly tinged with sadness, as Allon moves through present-day Jewish communities in Munich, Venice and Rome where nothing seems to have been changed by the deaths and denials of history.

At the end of The Confessor, after many scenes of thumping action, passionate words, hot pursuit and cold revenge, what will probably stay with you longest are the quiet moments where the reasons for Pope Paul VII's convictions are revealed. It's a different kind of thrill than you might expect from a commercial thriller, but it certainly leaves a tingle.