The latest novel by German Book Prize winner Eugen Ruge, Pompeji is an ambitious work of historical fiction that reflects contemporary issues. Holding great appeal for politically engaged readers as well as those interested in classical history, Pompeji is an engaging tale that employs vivid characterisation, a pacey narrative and clever humour to draw us into a fictionalised world.
Narrated from the perspective of Josse, a working-class citizen of Pompeii, the novel begins just after the earthquake of AD 62 that largely destroyed the city. One of its knock-on effects is to interrupt Josse’s schooling; he instead spends several years hanging around the ruins and reinventing himself as a member of the Pannonian aristocracy. Josse and his friends unwittingly end up at a meeting of philosophical groups banned by Emperor Titus, where one of the members announces that the nearby Monte Somma is a volcano. Convinced of the danger, Josse makes a halting speech – the first of five around which the novel is structured – recommending that everyone leave Pompeii.
Though Josse’s first speech is hesitant, his talent for rhetoric improves when he joins a community of philosophers and free thinkers founding a new town further down the coast. The place is known as The Window on the Sea and attracts a number of outsiders. During this period, Josse also makes the acquaintance of Polybius, a Pompeiian businessman who encourages him to overthrow the new community’s leader – which provides the occasion for another speech. Shortly afterwards, Josse falls under the seductive spell of Livia, the wife of Pompeii’s governor, who is keen to avoid a mass exodus to the new town for personal financial reasons.
Consulting Pliny and Pythagoras – whose back stories are presented in digressions from the main narrative – Josse discovers that Monte Somma is not in fact a volcano, and accordingly urges the citizens of Pompeii to stay. He then stands for election as city governor, and is delivering his fifth and final speech of the novel when Vesuvius erupts and destroys everything in sight.
Rhetoric is a major theme of Pompeii, with Josse’s speeches increasing in skill and scope as the novel progresses. Ruge reflects present-day concerns around rhetoric and fake news; Josse’s personal reinvention, political machinations and willingness to bend the truth also speak to the power-grabbing often seen in the real world. Other themes include democracy, military might, class systems and colonialism – as much as Pompeii is a multicultural city, it is also portrayed as a colony of Rome. The historical context is bolstered by the inclusion of real classical figures, while Ruge’s idiomatic language and richly textured narrative give Pompeii broad appeal.