Cracking Dante's Code
Monday, April 17, 2006
THE LAST CATO
By Matilde Asensi
Translated from the Spanish by Pamela Carmell
Rayo. 458 pp. $24.95
Matilde Asensi's "The Last Cato," the latest entry in the "Da Vinci Code" sweepstakes, is a strange, ambitious, sometimes interesting, often frustrating piece of work. In Dan Brown's theological thriller, Leonardo da Vinci's work provided clues to a search for the Holy Grail; here, the poet Dante is our guide in a search for the "true cross." The most significant difference between the two novels is that Brown unleashed a blistering attack on Catholicism, whereas Asensi, a Spanish journalist, is more sympathetic to the church, and even offers as her heroine an intelligent and devout nun, Dr. Ottavia Salina.
Ottavia is also a scholar who holds an important job in the Vatican working with ancient manuscripts. She is summoned one day to examine photographs of a dead Ethiopian with strange ceremonial scars in the form of Greek letters and crosses. Working with the formidable Capt. Kaspar Glauser-Roist of the Swiss Guards and a shy but handsome Egyptian scholar named Farag Boswell, she learns that when the Ethiopian died in a plane crash he was carrying pieces of the cross that had been stolen from churches around the world. The Vatican assigns these three to find these priceless relics. Indeed, Ottavia is told that not only is the pope praying for their success, but he also is lending them his own Alitalia Westwind II to speed their mission.
We veer into the history of the cross and learn that in the 4th century a secret society called the Brotherhood of the Staurofilakes was formed to protect it. Theirs was not an easy task. Early Christian pilgrims, pretending to kiss the cross, "ripped out splinters with their teeth to take as relics," and during the Crusades it was captured by the great Muslim general Saladin. Even when the cross was returned, pieces were parceled out to various churches -- often "just a tiny sliver or a little sawdust" -- and now, in the 21st century, these relics are being stolen.
Our three investigators discover that Dante was a member of this brotherhood and his "Divine Comedy" is a secret guide to how one joins the organization. For reasons that defy explanation here, if our heroes are to recover the missing relics, they must pass seven tests relating to the seven deadly sins described in "The Divine Comedy." These tests mostly involve entering underground labyrinths where they encounter fire, rising water, severe winds, poisoned thorns, nasty leeches, locked gates and the like. After they survive each ordeal they are invariably rendered unconscious -- usually by a mysterious knock on the head -- whereupon their tormenters tattoo them with crosses to mark their progress. These adventures have a certain Indiana Jones quality; some readers may find them exciting, but as one ordeal followed another I found them heavy going and often simply preposterous.
Some of Asensi's church history is of interest, but much of what she presents as scholarship is simply scholarly name-dropping. For example, she has one of the characters tell us, "In 215 Emperor Caracalla was in Alexandria and for no apparent reason, he decreed a draft of strong, young men. After reviewing the new troops, he commanded that men and horses be assassinated." All of which has absolutely nothing at all to do with her story, and dozens of such indulgences help make the novel far too long. We encounter such sentences as, "Even more astonishing, he was adorned with gorgeous catatheistae that hung under his toufa ." No, this isn't dirty: Footnotes explain that the first of these Greek words refers to an ornament and the second to an imperial diadem. But a thriller is no place for dozens of footnotes that provide translations from the Greek.
One of the nicer elements of the story has Ottavia falling in love with Farag and confronting a painful choice between her love of God and the temptations of the flesh. In another of the novel's more interesting interludes, Asensi presents her vision of a religious utopia, populated by kind, pious, intelligent, hard-working, nonviolent, culture-loving vegetarians -- a vision as sweet and silly as all utopias must be. The author pointedly has one character contrast this earthly paradise with "a church that has forgotten all about the gospel." But in terms of Vatican-bashing, Asensi doesn't come close to Dan Brown.
The astonishing success of "The Da Vinci Code" -- 40 million hardback copies sold in three years -- came about because Brown, by accident or design, hit upon a brilliant two-part formula. His basic message was a scathing attack on Catholicism for 20 centuries of alleged sexism, violence, hypocrisy, corruption and related sins. Of course, all that has been said many times before, although mostly in nonfiction. Brown's inspiration was to present his case through the most popular form of fiction we have, the modern thriller, which enabled him to use murder, mystery, suspense, romance, chases and related devices to hook the reader. If you were open to his basic message, as millions of people obviously were, his delivery system made the combination irresistible. It was the literary equivalent of being offered champagne with your chocolate truffles. Asensi's novel is in some ways more interesting and ambitious than Brown's, but it is also pretentious and overwrought, and not nearly as much fun.