Pompeii before the ashes

Jonathan ben Mordecai, hip-deep in the Tyrrhenian Sea didn’t hear Flavia’s warning to look out for the horrible creature rising out of the water behind him. He went under with a scream and few seconds later, surfaced, wrestling with 8-year-old Lupus, the sea monster.

Most lovers of literature would probably prefer fiction to a dry matter-of-fact voice that uses big words in an essay or an intimidating volume of an encyclopaedia. American writer, Caroline Lawrence fictionalises history by bringing the Famous Five to a later Roman timeline in a series of children’s literature that could easily engross an older audience. Applying her experiences in Greek and Latin studies, and inspiration from a brief school trip to Ostia, Italy, she manages to translate tedious texts and histories into an enjoyable reading experience.

The Secrets of Vesuvius, the second instalment in the Roman Mysteries series, transports the reader to the year AD 79, when Mount Vesuvius was thought to be a mere harmless article in the landscape of Italy. Flavia and her friends are spending their summer in Pompeii, trying to solve a riddle given to them by the (real-life) historian Pliny the Elder.

At first, just a flash of orange spying on them, darting away when she’s discovered, leaping from tree branches and scaling walls, 7-year-old Clio is a riot. They eventually catch up to her, one of the adopted daughters of more real-life characters, Tascius and Rectina, and become fast friends. Clio invites them to luxurious baths and lavish dinners where honey-glazed quails’ eggs in fish sauce, squares of camels’-milk cheese and purple olives from Kalamata are only the starters.

They also encounter Vulcan, a taciturn travelling blacksmith with a trusty donkey and a crippled foot trudging up the road. He was abandoned at birth, a lot like the Roman god of fire himself after whom he is named. The children attend the festival of Vulcanalia, celebrated in honour of Vulcan, from which the word ‘volcano’ is derived. It is a cruel irony that the festival preceded the eruption by mere days.

Although only 10 years old, the protagonist with her nose for solving mysteries is quite clever; her young age allows an open mind and wide-open eyes that observe the world with greater attention. It doesn’t occur to her that women in her society, young girls especially, are meant to serve, to cook, to be married and keep quiet. If it does, she doesn’t seem to care. She recognises the initial warning signs, even when the adults, the renowned Pliny included, are determined to believe what they have always known to be true. But there is a time and place to feel bad about bruises to the male ego. Flavia pushes these men to stop wallowing in self-pity and hopelessness, and to fight for their survival. It is believed that during the escape, Pliny the Elder, an asthmatic, succumbed to the fumes and was left behind, buried by the ashes.

His nephew, Pliny the Younger (for unique male names have always been in short supply), who watched the historic catastrophe from the city of Herculaneum, across the sea from Pompeii, made detailed accounts that Lawrence heavily relied on to write the novel and to which she added only a few fictional elements.

These elements, Caroline Lawrence’s original characters, bring several other histories to the table. Nubia is an African slave stolen from her home whom Flavia later sets free. Jonathan is a refugee who had to flee Jerusalem when it was attacked by the Roman Emperor Nero. Stories of mythology and cultural practices are infused into the narrative that aligns with the known political timeline.

What might interest the reader the most is how a phenomenon that occurred nearly 2000 years ago is still relevant, not merely because of the way history impacts the present, but also owing to the fact that a volcano that erupted back then for the first time ever, has done so several times since. When it erupts again, it would have the near-instantaneous momentum that was first witnessed by Pliny, wiping out everything in its path.

When the city of Pompeii was dug up, it revealed corpses frozen by ashes
They are almost lifelike if not for the stinging greyness

The Bastille song Pompeii imagines a conversation between two people unmoving on the deserted streets of the city. The lines, “But if you close your eyes, does it almost feel like nothing changed at all?” haunts the listener about the people who saw the signs of their impending doom, who chose to ignore it and retreat. Nothing changed all these years because of how the ash has frozen them in place.

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Shweta Philip

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