James Carroll’s “Warburg in Rome’’ has many of the ingredients of a great spy thriller: a high-stakes battle between good and evil; a plot full of twists and turns; a cultural capital both seductive and corrupt; characters caught in ethical thickets; and a moment of existential crisis when all the world’s troubles seem to converge on a single point on the map, bringing out the best and the worst in all who happen to find themselves at the fractured center of civilization.
Like John le Carré’s Cold War Berlin, Alan Furst’s prewar Paris, and Graham Greene’s postwar Vienna, Warburg’s Rome is a morally fraught landscape where the forces of light and darkness battle for and within each human soul. The fate of millions hinges on the decisions made by his protagonists but, as in those other fictional settings, the enormity of the stakes overwhelms moral certainty. We are plunged into a murky world where heroic action often backfires and conflicting moral imperatives give rise to unsavory compromises.
Set in Rome after the Allied liberation of the city from the Nazis — and in the immediate postwar period when the aftershocks of the cataclysm were still tearing Europe apart — the novel lays bare the complicity of the Vatican and the Allies in the extermination of Europe’s Jewish population and in the secret campaign to help the murderers evade justice.
The book follows David Warburg, a US Treasury agent sent to Rome immediately after the Allied takeover in 1944. His assignment is to deal with the growing refugee crisis caused by Nazi atrocities and the inevitable dislocations of war, a heart-wrenching mission that forces him to question where his loyalties lie. Though Warburg is Jewish, he has lost touch with his heritage, and at the book’s emotional core is his rediscovery of his identity as he confronts the horrors visited upon a people he had held at arm’s length.
Unfortunately, “Warburg in Rome’’ does not sustain the promise of its conception. Rome never comes alive as either a city or an idea, despite the wealth of detail Carroll provides. And while his characters wrestle with impossible choices, they are too insubstantial to allow us to share their agonizing journey. His protagonists include a US priest who must choose between faith and conscience; a Jew forced to embrace a tribal identity he never before acknowledged; and a beautiful Red Cross worker steadily brutalized in a noble cause. In other hands, these would make up a memorable cast, but Carroll never allows his characters an independent life; they are ciphers whose only purpose is to explicate a complicated, under-told slice of history.
In nonfiction books like “Constantine’s Sword,’’ this former priest exposed the Catholic Church’s vicious treatment of Jews over the centuries, and here he attempts to shed light on a particularly disreputable moment in Catholic history when, called on to take a moral stand, its leaders chose expedience. In his zeal to tell an important story, Carroll robs it of dramatic potential. Consider this portion of a conversation between a priest and a nun trying to rescue Jews in Hungary: “ ‘What if, say, you sent out a routine reiteration of the procedures involved in issuing Vatican employment visas? Persons carrying out the business of a neutral state are privileged with the exemptions appropriate to neutrality.’ ” This goes on page after page, exposition masquerading as dialogue; the enormity of the Holocaust lost beneath an avalanche of detail and bureaucratic jargon.
While much of the prose is arid, when Carroll strives for eloquence he usually veers too far in the opposite direction. “Stars burn out, eternally unremembered,” one character muses, “with their one huge advantage of knowing nothing of their fate. Lehmann knew his.” This is the kind of image that has never come to the mind of a real human being, unless he is a writer straining too hard after a memorable phrase.
Such missteps are a pity. “Warburg in Rome” has an important story to tell: how in a world plunged into violence moral clarity is lost, and how even the most noble causes can succumb to human weakness. Unfortunately, while Carroll has provided us with a history lesson, he has conjured something less than a gripping tale.
Miles J. Unger is the author of “Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces,’’ to be published in July. He can be reached on Facebook at Miles J. Unger.