15 Best Books of 2015

 

khliafat-smaranakal

Though I did not blog, I read a lot. This list is in no particular order. Most of it is non-fiction.

    1. The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. On the origins of Al-Qaeda and the lack of co-ordination among investigating agencies that led to 9/11. Riveting read.
    2. The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century. Steve Coll becomes a fly on the wall in the bin-Laden family tracing their relationships among themselves, the kings of Saudi Arabia. He also goes into the convenient relationship between the Saudis and Americans.
    3. Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East. During WWI, a bunch of young guys from Germany, USA and Romania were roaming around the Middle East with varying motives. Their goal was to spy for their country and leverage the war. The book reads like fiction.
    4. The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East. Understanding WWI and the fall of the Ottoman Empire is critical not just in understanding the formation of the Middle East, it is also important in understanding certain events that happened in India.  This book gives the required background.
    5. Rearming HinduismAbhinav’s review has all the details.
    6. Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors A good book to learn the fundamentals of human origins and evolution.
    7. Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief You will learn a lot about L. Ron Hubbard, the religion he founded and the tactics that they use to keep people within the flock.
    8. The Martian I am the person who spoils a movie by saying the book was better. Even if you have seen the movie, read the book.
    9. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth Read my detailed review.
    10. Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College TownA look a the culture of rape in a small town in America and how it gets handled.
    11. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Prof. Harari taught this course on Coursera and it was brilliant. The book captures his ideas (see sample) very and this is probably one of my favorite books of last year.
    12. The Baklava Club: A Novel (Investigator Yashim Book 5) Fiction.  I loved the first book in the series and read all of them. Though the third and fourth books were not of the quality of 1 and 2, this one is an excellent read.
    13. The Tears of Dark Water Fiction. The book starts with the hijacking of an American boat off the Somali coast. But it is not just a thriller.Towards the middle, the book turns around and gives a much detailed look into the lives of Somalis.
    14. Khilafat Smaranakal or Memories of Khilafat (Malayalam). Brahmadattan Nambuthiri was a local Congress president during the Mappila Lahala of 1921. He was arrested for his speeches, shuttled among various jails and tortured.  Finally, when he was released, he was excommunicated. The book gives a first-hand account of what happened in Malabar during those times. Maddy also mentions him in this post.
    15. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin 1933, William Dodd was the American ambassador to Germany and he and his daughter Martha saw the rise of the empire. Martha gets involved with the Gestapo and Soviet spies. Fascinating read.

In the Reading List: Pope And Mussolini

So far it was believed that the Catholic Church was against fascism during the 20s and 30s, when Mussolini came to power in Italy.  Newly revealed documents state otherwise. NPR had an interview with David Kertzer, the author of the new book  The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europeand here are some interesting points from the transcript.
On the pope’s interest in allying with Mussolini
The popes had seen the Italian government as enemies, basically. They had rejected the notion of the separation of church and state, they had lost their privileged position in society, and they had always called that system illegitimate. Pius XI at least began to see the possibility that Mussolini might be the person sent by God — the man of providence — as he would later refer to him … who would reverse all of that, who would end the separation of church and state, restore many of the prerogatives of the church and at the same time, as the Pope was very worried about the rising socialist movement … saw Mussolini as the man who was the best bet, perhaps, to prevent a socialist takeover of Italy.
On what the church got out of this alliance
The church got financial benefits, considerable payments by the state to the Catholic clergy. … They got, for example, as the fascists were forming fascist youth groups, which millions of youth in Italy were a part of in those years, the church was given chaplains to all the local chapters of the fascist youth groups so that they were able to influence the youth, which was very important to them. They also got as part of the Concordat, the fascist imposition of teaching religion in elementary schools, which was one of the first things Mussolini did to ingratiate himself when he came to power — to extend that to secondary schools as well so that all the school children in Italy were taught Catholic religion in their school.

Kon-Tiki (2012)

Painting of the Kon-Tiki raft
Painting of the Kon-Tiki raft

One of the most dreadful accounts of people stranded helplessly in the ocean that I have read is in Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. In this true story, Louis Zamperini, whose performance in the 1936 Olympics caught the attention of Adolf Hitler, crashes into the Pacific on a search mission during WWII in a B-4. While the crash killed eight of the eleven men on board, Zamperini and two of his colleagues float in the open ocean on a life raft. For 47 days, they caught fish, evaded sharks and Japanese bombers and miraculously survived (One of them, Francis McNamara, died after 33 days) to wash up into a Japanese POW camp in Marshall Islands.
Five years after Zamperini’s unplanned voyage across the Pacific, a Norwegian explorer and writer named Thor Heyerdahl, set off on a voyage from Peru to Polynesia. Heyerdahl had a theory that Polynesia was populated not from Asia, but from South America. The early explorers to Polynesia had found pineapple, which was indigenous to South America. Also, certain sculptures found in Polynesia resembled the ones in pre-Columbian Peru. Though his theory was dismissed by academics and the National Geographic Society, because people at that time did not have boats required for such long distance travel, Heyerdahl believed that the rafts they had were sufficient and the ocean current would have favored such a travel; he believed that ancient Peruvians did not see water as a barrier.
To prove this, he decided to travel 5000 miles in the Pacific, on raft made of balsa wood and assembled using the same materials the ancient explorers would have used. With private funding, supplies from the United States Navy, and with a crew of six people, he set off to prove this theory. This Norwegian movie is about that voyage and was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards. Heyerdahl did not go full commando on this voyage; the crew carried radio equipment, watches, charts and sextants, but that did nothing to minimize the dangers of the voyage.
There was the possibility that a storm would wash them back into South America or taken them into Galapagos. They survive few storms and soon encounter giant sharks which swim below the raft; there is some stunning photography at his point as the camera goes below the waves. They survive the shark attacks, even going as far as harpooning one and bringing it on board. While there were concerns that the wood was absorbing water and becoming heavy, they eventually figure that they are along the right path. Soon they spot land, and just few days before India got independence, they land at Raroia.
Though Heyerdahl proved that you could travel 5000 miles in the open ocean in a balsa wood raft the his theory that Polynesia was populated by South Americans never found acceptance. The dominant theory seems to be that Polynesia was populated from South-East Asia.

Interview: Steven A. McKay, Author of Wolf's Head

The Wolf’s Head is a retelling of the Robin Hood legend. The first book in the series is the story of how Robin Hood, a normal man, becomes an outlaw to save himself and in the process gets entangled in national politics. The book was self-published and is a bestseller in UK.  Here is my interview with Steven A. McKay.

JK: The legend of Robin Hood has been around for centuries. Countless books have been written and numerous movies have been made. In fact I found that there was a movie made as recent as 2013. So what made you decide that this is a subject you want to tackle?

I’m a big fan of Bernard Cornwell’s King Arthur books, and I wanted to do something similar, with a similar kind of hero. I’m from Great Britain, so I wanted to base my book here. I had these ideas but couldn’t think of a good character to base my series around. I was in my car thinking about it, and I drove into a street and saw a house that had the name “Sherwood” which is where most Robin Hood stories are set. It was really like a message from God, I instantly thought of Robin and realised he would be the perfect guy to write about.

JK: Before reading your book, the only knowledge I had about Robin Hood was that he stole from the rich and gave it to the poor and your book stays truthful to that. But it goes to his backstory and explains how he became an outlaw. Is there a different perspective that you are bringing to the folklore?

Well, there are lots of different variations of the legend, but the majority of them, including the 2013 film, suggest Robin was a nobleman – an Earl or a returning Templar knight or something like that. But when I looked back at the very first stories ever told about Robin, he was just a regular guy. He wasn’t rich, or a Lord, or anything like that, he was just like the rest of us. So I decided to go with that and make my version of the character a normal man who gets on the wrong side of the law, which was very corrupt anyway.

The idea that he stole from the rich and gave to the poor makes sense, which is why I mostly stuck to that – the rich were the only people it was WORTH stealing from – why steal a few coins from a poor man when you could steal a lot of coins from a rich man? And, since the outlaws would need a lot of help from the local villagers, they would have had to have kept them on their side. Giving the local people food and money would have made them much more likely to help Robin and his friends.

JK: Your book is  a retelling of the Robin Hood legend set in 1321 in Yorkshire, rather than the usual 12 century in Nottingham. Why is this important?

It’s important in terms of how I approached the story. England in 1321 was going through a lot of political upheaval and strife, so I thought it would make an interesting backdrop for the outlaws’ adventures. It’s also important because, as you say, there are a lot of movies, books, TV shows etc about Robin Hood already, and they’re all set in the 12th century so I felt I had to offer something fresh to the legend. Ultimately, it all goes back to those very first stories: to me, the “real” Robin, the guy that all these tales were told about, would have actually lived in the 14th century, not the 12th, and the stories also placed him and his men in Barnsdale, in Yorkshire. I wanted to make the novel as historically accurate as I could, so it was a simple choice to write about Yorkshire in 1321.

JK: The folks who appear in the story, Matilda, Will Scarlet, Little John…is there any historical basis to these characters?

It’s very hard – impossible! – to say with any certainty whether any of these people really lived in the form the legends speak about. Certainly, a man called Robert Hood lived around the time and was married to a girl called Matilda (Maid Marion is a much later addition to the original legend). There is also some evidence that a man that could well have been Little John came from the village of Hathersage and the sheriff, Henry de Faucumberg lived, and was the sheriff of both Nottingham and Yorkshire. In my opinion, those old stories must have been based around real people – people who fought against the corrupt lawmen and were loved by the peasants because of it. Over time, of course, their deeds were exaggerated, names subtly changed and so on, but that’s what makes the Robin Hood legend so interesting – everyone can have their own interpretation of it, because no one knows for sure what the truth is. 

JK: Who are some of the writers who have influenced you? What are some of your favorite historical fiction books which you have read in the past few years?

Bernard Cornwell is my biggest hero in historical fiction, but I also love to read about the Romans. Douglas Jackson is great, I love his books, and he’s a Scotsman like me! Glyn Iliffe writes fantastic books about Odysseus, and he was a big influence, since he also took a well-loved legend and tried (very successfully in my opinion) to make it fresh and new. Outwith the historical stuff, I love the way David Gemmell wrote his heroes, that guy really knew how to describe a fight scene!

JK: Writing historical fiction is hard because you have to get not just the plot and characterization right, but the period detail as well. What was your preparation like? Did you spend a lot of time reading about that period to get the food, clothing and weapons right or did you focus on the plot and fill the details later?

Yes, when I first decided to write about the 14th century I read as much about the period as I could, and about the Robin Hood legend, before I even started to think about writing my novel. Graham Phillips and Professor JC Holt’s books were essential reading for the whole background. For specific things though, like maybe a character’s favourite meal, I would leave it until I’d finished the first draft then do some more in-depth research on what kind of thing they would have eaten back then. You really have to be careful, because people pick up on little things and it can ruin their enjoyment of the story. For example, in my first draft of the book, I had one of the men making a stew with potatoes – potatoes hadn’t been introduced in England at that time, and I knew that, but I’d let that slip in and only noticed as I proof-read it. It’s a minor point, but like you say, these period details are very important in creating a powerful, believable setting.

JK: At the end of the book you mention that you had collapsed various Sheriffs into one. How accurate should historical fiction be? Can the writer deliberately omit information or enhance it?

In my opinion, the most important thing is telling a great story. As you say, I decided to have just one sheriff, who will feature throughout the series, rather than having a variety of different men that readers would have to get to know. Since no one knows for sure who the REAL Sheriff in the Robin Hood legend was, I didn’t see a problem with that. I did try to have real names for the characters where I could – I spent a lot of time on that and, to be honest, probably only a tiny fraction of readers would even notice. How many readers know, or care, who the Archbishop was in 1321? Ultimately, I do think the history should be as accurate as possible, but if it makes the story better and it’s something minor then I have no problem with things being omitted or enhanced. No potatoes in stews though!

JK: Adding too much histo
rical detail can make the book look like a history book. Adding less will not transport the reader to the right period. How do you come up with the right mix of spices? Do you have any guidelines?

As I say, I steeped myself in medieval history books for a while so I got into the right frame of mind to write about the period, but in general I just write scenes as they come out then I might go back and add in something like the correct design for a coat-of-arms or a description of a medieval manor house. I’m not the type to put in too much history, because I’m not a historian. In fact, I probably know a lot more about the Romans and the Greeks than I do about medieval Britain since my Bachelor of Arts degree was built mostly on those eras. I think each writer, and indeed reader, has their own idea of how much history should be in a novel. I don’t have any guidelines other than “less is more”!

JK: Sue Grafton said this about self-published writers, “Self-publishing is a short cut and I don’t believe in short cuts when it comes to the arts. “ As a successful self-published author, what do you think about it?

I don’t know who Sue Grafton is, but she’s a lucky lady if she managed to find a publisher. The problem is, publishers aren’t willing to take a chance on a new writer very often these days – as everyone points out, Stephen King and JK Rowling were rejected countless times. Publishers want someone who is going to sell tens of thousands of books for them without them having to put in much effort in marketing or promotion. What does Sue Grafton suggest new writers do if they can’t find an agent or a publisher? Give up? Why should we? I don’t know, I haven’t read the interview where she said that, so I don’t know the context, but it’s the same with music. Bands like Iron Maiden and Metallica couldn’t get record deals at first, so they put their music out themselves – self-publishing basically – and now millions of people all over the world, including me, enjoy their music.

I don’t really care what Sue Grafton thinks to be honest, I’ve never heard of her until now. Does she listen to Iron Maiden?

JK: Based on your experience, what are some of the tips that you would give to someone who would like to write historical fiction other than the obvious ones like “read a lot” and “write daily” 🙂

Well I don’t suggest people write daily anyway – I only write when I feel like it! I don’t see much point in forcing myself to write every day, when much of it will end up being scrapped, so I would say you should only write when you are in the mood and have a good idea of what you’re going to be doing with the characters in that particular session. Writing is an art, not a science, so everyone can approach it however they like – just do what works and what feels right. The most important thing is that YOU enjoy what you’re writing – that’s why I don’t need to force myself to write every day. I know I’ll get it done eventually because it’s FUN! It’s a hobby, like playing Xbox, or playing guitar or playing football you know?

And don’t give up. Yes, everyone dreams of finding a publisher and becoming the next Tolkien, Dickens or Sue Grafton, but it’s so easy these days to self-publish that you CAN take your stories to people all around the world. I’ve done it, and plenty of other people have too, so take heart and get writing (when you feel like it)!

Writing Historical Fiction (11): Hilary Mantel


Over the past year I read books in the mythology retelling genre and almost all of them used modern words and idioms whichobviously does not make for a great reading experience. As you read works of writers like Iain Pears (Stone’s Fall, An Instance of the Fingerpost) or David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas), you realize that there is tremendous effort involved in recreating that era. In this interview, Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel explains how she uses language to make the story authentic to the period.

I know language is said to be one of the great problems for historical novelists. It’s vital because it sets the tone, the register of the novel, and if you misjudge, your reader will flinch. But I can’t pretend I’ve ever agonised over it; the idiom seems to arrive along with the characters and the first line. I’m aware, of course, that much unconscious preparation goes on, below the line, before the first words register on the screen or the page. I think most of us working today are keen to avoid pastiche, and we privilege clarity. But if your language is totally modern, it implants the false suggestion that your characters have modern thoughts. So what you want is a flavour, a twist, like a hint of perfume or spice, which animates your plain prose and gives it a slight otherness. If you understand your characters’ world view, all the images and metaphors they might use in speech, or in the thoughts they share with the reader, will be of a piece, and all their expressions will be congruent. So I think you can’t separate the issue of language from the general effort to find out as much as you can about how their world was different from ours.[Hilary Mantel ‘like some inky clerk with a quill, scratching to keep up’]

Apprenticed to a Himalayan Master by Sri M


Western scholars and Indian scholars obsessed with western interpretations have tried to explain the evolution of the philosophy of Sanatana Dharma using Western terminology. Apparently, initially it was naturalistic and anthropomorphic polytheism which then gradually yielded to monotheism and later to monism. Max Müller suggested that there was a transitory state called henotheism between polytheism and monotheism. But all this terminology is alien to dharmic thought and it is outright silly to refer to such terms. Even a person like Prof. Vinay Lal in his terrible course on Indian diaspora mentions that when Hindus don’t have concepts like these, it is ridiculous to talk about Hinduism using those concepts.
If you read such introductory books on Hinduism, they will mention that the Vedas were sruti, revealed to sages who followed their saadhana. Less mentioned is the fact that there were a large number of people who had unique experiences by following the many practices available as part of the tradition. Such people did not live only in the ancient past, there are many who live amongst us, who have attained higher states of spiritual existence. Some of them live in the holy places in the Himalayas, some live among the mango men. Some demonstrate their siddhis, others don’t.
Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramhansa Yogananda revealed the life of a seeker and the many spiritual souls he met along the way. Living With the Himalayan Masters by Swami Rama was another one. Apprenticed to a Himalayan Master (A Yogi’s Autobiography) is interesting because the yogi was born as a Deccani Muslim – Mumtaz Ali Khan – in Trivandrum in 1948. At the age of nine, when he was just walking in his house, he saw a stranger standing under the jackfruit tree in the compound. As the boy approached him, the stranger asked if he remembered anything and boy replied in the negative. The stranger then said that years later, he would remember everything and went away.
Two years later, he experienced kevala kumbhaka and along with it tremendous happiness. As he grew up, he met various people who suggested books (on Vedanta, Upanishads, Gita, Yoga, Kudalini) and taught him yogic practices. Among the people whom he met in Kerala included a tea shop owner turned saint, a naked lady on the beach, and a Sufi saint. At the age of 19, he left for the Himalayas and while wandering around Badrinath, he went to a cave where he met the person whom he had seen at the age of nine in Trivandrum. He spent the next three years traveling with his guru in the Himalayas, after which he returned back to Kerala where he still lives.
In the introduction of the book, the author mentions that he had many unique experiences of which many would be unbelievable. This book includes topics  like meeting beings from another planet and walking through doors. Books by other spiritual gurus too contain such unbelievable anecdotes. What is fascinating about the book is the way it reveals what a spiritual country India still is. All way from Kerala to the Himalayas, there is a culture which transcends language and unites the nation. There are many gurus teaching in many traditions in the free flowing marketplace of ideas without the fear of blasphemy. Even before the British invented a nation called India, there existed an India where an 8th century Malayali named Shankara could travel, learn and teach. That India is very much alive in M’s book.
Postscript: I have never met the author nor listened to any of his teachings. Just chanced upon the book while browsing the spirituality section of a bookstore.

An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears

Writers of historical fiction tend to use few standard structural patterns. The most common one is when all the events happen in the same time frame as in Wilbur Smith’s Warlock or Jason Goodwin’s The Snake Stone or Javier Sierra’s The Secret Supper.  Another popular structure is when people in the present time frame are chasing a treasure or reacting to events that happened centuries ago. In such styles, two timelines alternate with clues set up in one narrative affecting the events like in the novels of Daniel Silva or Clive Cussler. More adventurous writers handle three timelines like in the Bible of Clay by Julia Navarro.  Then once in awhile you read books, where the writer juggles much more than three timelines effortlessly, weaving a tale or presenting an idea that is captivating, like in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.
An Instance of the Fingerpost plays with the structure in a different way: the tale of a 17th century murder at Oxford is narrated by four people who were present and each of those narrators are unreliable and have their own agenda. The story is set during the period following the events of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies . Charles II was keeping the throne warm and the sugarcane plantations of Barbados were generating wealth. Oxford was a town filled with scientists, philosophers and priests and it is to this town that the first narrator — a Venetian named Marco da Cola — who is in England to tend to his father’s business affairs, arrives.
There he mingles with intellectuals like Robert Boyle, John Locke, Thomas Ken and Richard Lower and mingles in the local taverns and their homes. He is also a gentle soul, helping the poor Sarah Blundy whose mother has been injured and no one would help. He claims to have invented blood transfusion and uses it to help Sarah Blundy’s mother. Then one day, a fellow at the college is found murdered, with traces of arsenic in whiskey. Sarah Blundy, who was seen around  is accused and hanged.
The second narrative is written by Jack Prestcott, the son of a Royalist traitor. He is on a mission to clear his father’s name and runs around to find evidence for it.  He believes his father was framed by someone powerful, while everyone else believes otherwise. The father’s treason was created using  secret messages which were encrypted using some books as the key and he wants to find the messages and the key.  Prestcott was in jail and had escaped in the night of the murder by trying up Dr. John Wallis who had come to visit him. Dr. John Wallis, who had worked as a crypographer for both Oliver Cromwell and the King is the narrator of the third part. He has been tasked by the minister with keeping the country safe, irrespective of the ruler and everywhere he looks, he sees conspiracies. He could have helped Jack, if he found the books that were used as the key for encryption. The final piece comes from Anthony Wood, an antiquarian, who is acquainted with all the characters and has an entirely different perspective on the events as well as the actors.
The 700 page book quite successfully recreates the 17th century Oxford with all the issues of that era such as the conflicts of the class system, the battle between the King’s men and Cromwell’s acolytes and the fights between philosophers and scientists. The book is not for those who want something quick to read like Daniel Silva; the story is quite complex and deals with a varied number of issues. Each sentence is well crafted and there is depth to the conversation between the characters with details of medicine, curing ailments, surgery, various philosophical and  religious schools, questions of loyalty to men and God.
A main worry of 17th century Europe and 21st century Delaware was witches. You see witches being burned few centuries earlier when Christopher Columbus was on his way to Hispaniola; you see similar theme in 17th century Germany. Oxford, the seat of learning for England, was no different and you see Sarah Blundy being accused of the same because she could heal. This was also a period when Papists were feared as well as  ridiculed and since Marco da Cola was one, this issue plays out well.
As each narrator tells his story, the previous narrator’s story is either refuted or altered or something that was downplayed, gets noticed. Thus Marco da Cola, who looked like a curious tourist in the first story, gets a completely new coat of paint in the last one. Sarah Blundy, who looked like a poor girl in Cola’s narrative is found to be a bigger player in the events that happen.  As the story moves forward, there are surprises culminating with a climax that could not be anticipated, but was seeded all along. The murder of a seemingly irrelevant person was part of a conspiracy which affected the future of England and that makes it a satisfying read.

Writing Historical Fiction (10): Geoff Nunberg

A while back, when I was reading one of those modern retellings of The Ramayana, I saw  a sentence which mentioned Rama walking through the Diwan-i-Khas and found that anachronism irritating. The Immortals of Meluha was  a collection of such anachronisms. Sometimes we need the Internet to find such oddities, but sometimes it just stands out due to lazy writing and poor editing. On NPR, Geoff Nunberg talks about this issue as well the question of historical characters speaking about modern issues instead of issues of their period.

But I give a pass to anachronisms if they don’t jump out at me. No, Mrs. Patmore probably wouldn’t have said “when push comes to shove,” and Lord Grantham should have waited a couple of decades before telling his chauffeur to “step on it,” but that isn’t what’s problematic about “Downton”‘s vision of the past. Even when the characters are speaking authentic period words, they aren’t using them to express authentic period thoughts.

The earl who frets over his duties as a job creator, the servants grappling with their own homophobia, those are comfortable modern reveries. Drop any of them into a period drawing room comedy by Shaw or Pinero, and they’d be as out of place as a flat-screen TV.

Equality, prejudice, race itself. How can you have mid-19th-century characters use words like those without anachronistically evoking the connotations they have for us? To many of Lincoln’s contemporaries, and even his allies, equality still evoked alarming echoes of the French Revolution. To speak of race equality implied not just that people should all be treated alike, but that the races really were morally and intellectually equivalent.

That was an extreme and dubious proposition to all but a few radical Republicans, like Thaddeus Stevens. Lincoln himself almost certainly didn’t believe it, nor did the prominent scientists of the age. In fact, race equality was the phrase the defenders of slavery used to charge that the Republicans wanted to raise Negroes to the same status as whites and encourage miscegenation, charges that most Republicans indignantly and sincerely denied. It’s discomfiting to read the accounts of those debates in Michael Vorenberg’s “Final Freedom,” the book that Kushner chiefly drew on in depicting them.

It’s hard for us to adapt our understanding of words like equality to a 19th-century moral frame. And it’s to Kushner’s credit that there are some overtones of those attitudes in his screenplay. [Historical Vocab: When We Get It Wrong, Does It Matter?]

Borgia: The Election of Pope Alexander VI in 1492

Italian Peninsula in 1492 (via Wikipedia)
Italian Peninsula in 1492 (via Wikipedia)

A week or so later, a group of cardinals will enter a secret conclave to elect the next head of the Catholic church. TV cameras will be focused on a chimney in the Vatican and the world will be forced to watch the color of smoke that appears. This time, the election is interesting because of the way Pope Benedict departed from the office and also due to the controversies such as the child sex abuse, mismanagement at the Vatican bank, the leaking of secret church documents. As the cardinals are Googling each other and meeting in private apartments and restaurant backrooms,  while scandals and intrigue heat up, people are petitioning for the removal of certain cardinals from the conclave.
In 1492 CE, there was an interesting papal election; this was the time of Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolò Machiavelli. It was the year in which Christopher Columbus set off on his voyage to discover Asia and it was during this newly elected pope’s time that Vasco da Gama reached Calicut. The French-German TV series Borgia had two episodes devoted to what exactly happened inside the Sistine Chapel and the fictional depiction showed that the whole process had no sanctity and simply was a medieval version of The House of Cards played in the name of a religion. Deals were made, money was transferred, forged documents were presented and even army was summoned, all while the cardinals were holed up in a chapel after taking an oath not to communicate with the external world.
The person who desperately wanted to become the pope was Roberto Borgia (pronounced Borja), the same person who sent  Madonna Damiata to investigate a murder in The Malice of Fortune. Though he was not a favorite, he was sure with that the right amount of cunning he could pull it off. During this period, when the worst insult consisted of accusing one of being a Muslim or Jew, there was no unified Italy, but it was divided into a number of warring city-states, kingdoms and duchies and the election of the pope consisted of finding the balance between those battles. Besides the local politics, the relation between Portugal, Spain and France added more spice in the election.
As Borgia enters the conclave, under an oath not to have any contact with the outside world, he he sure of six votes, but needs fourteen to win. But once the doors are closed, the cardinals start bickering over a new oath the pope elected should take. Since the church is rotten to the core  and members could buy positions in the Curia, they want to limit that practice. But some members oppose; they don’t want  the Vicar of Christ to take man made oaths, but instead want the oath to be non-binding. Once that is resolved, Borgia approaches the Portuguese cardinal and uses his Spanish origins to bargain. Since they both are the non-Italians in the group, he proposes that they unite.
After the first round of voting, Borgia receives just the six votes he expected. He tries to convince a cardinal who received one vote (his own) to support him, but he calls Borgia a whore. The next day, a letter in which Pope Pius rebuked Borgia for attending an orgy, surfaces. As all attention turns to him, Borgia turns the table on his accuser. The accuser had supported Borgia in his two previous attempts to become pope and on those two occasions, he did not bring up the letter. Hence this had to be a forgery. While it calms the proceedings, it reduces his supporters by one.
The next day another letter surfaces which alleges that the King of France had paid 200,000 ducats to one of the cardinals to buy off the election. It also accuses that the forged letter against Borgia was created using French money. Accusations go back with cries of “liar” and “hypocrite”. A young cardinal, who is on his first conclave, wonders why letters are being smuggled in against all rules. The vote count following all this reduces Borgia’s count to four and it looks as if he is on his way out.
Borgia starts negotiating directly with potential supporters. When he promises money, one of them retorts that his opponent as promised double the amount and if they go back and forth of money, all money in Rome would be insufficient for the counter offers. Then Borgia offers him the position of Vice-Chancellor, a position he currently holds in addition to the coins. By the third day, the cardinals are offered only one whole meal a day and all of them who are used to a lavish lifestyle cannot take it. Borgia uses this opportunity to smuggle in a great meal. He also promises an abbey for one cardinal, a church for another and a harbor for the third. He even promises to banish his nephews and niece (actually his children) so that they do not become competitors to the cardinals. A cardinal from Florence was worried about the power of the Medici and Borgia promises him that if he became pope he would crush that family. In the next round of voting, his count increases to ten.
One of the losing cardinals sends a message to the king of Naples to bring his army to Rome, hoping that  force would help clear the indecision. As a battle gets underway outside the, the cardinals decide that they will not suspend the conclave till the pope is chosen. The cardinal who summoned the army apologizes for his mistake and asks his supporters to vote for Borgia’s opponent as he thinks Borgia is not a Catholic, but a Spanish Jew who converted. But by the next vote, Borgia’s tally increases to 12 and his opponent to 13. The one who gets 14 wins and it becomes critical for Borgia to get there by any means for else he will have to flee to Spain.
In the final act, he negotiates directly with his competitor. He claims that he is a Roman and is concerned about reforming the church than about the politics between Milan, Naples and Florence. When that does not work, he offers the office of the Vice Chancellor. As bribery and flattery fails, Borgia takes the final weapon in his arsenal; he produces a document which alleges that the opponent’s family has Muslim blood in it. This accusation, Borgia threatens, is sufficient to put him out of business forever. The opponent succumbs and accepts the position of Vice Chancellor and the deal is closed. The next day when the votes are counted, Borgia gets 14 votes and he yells, “I am the Vicar of Christ!”
The politics of 2013 is definitely not going to involve calling armies or passing silver coins, but the Vatican thinks the leaks of certain reports have been done to influence the election of the pope. In 1492 election, theological views were never discussed, but for the coming election, it is expected that a conservative pope will be elected because Benedict has filled the positions with people who align with his conservatism. This means that the Church’s position on homosexuality and birth control will not change. What is same from 1492 is this:  even though the growth of the church has been outside Europe in the past century, the electoral college is Eurocentric. We will not know what exactly happens inside the conclave, but one can follow certain blogs and get a sense of the events.