Too Much to Decipher
Monday, March 24, 2008
The Secret Identity of Christopher Columbus
By José Rodrigues dos Santos
Translated from the Portuguese by Alison Entrekin
Morrow. 319 pp. $24.95
Ever since the amazing success of Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code," the market has been flooded with would-be successors. The problem is that most of the imitators miss the point. Brown didn't sell millions of copies because of Leonardo da Vinci or a code; he sold them because he launched a ferocious attack on the Catholic Church. Nonetheless, the imitators keep coming, featuring mysteries deep in the past with literary and/or religious overtones. I read one novel that involved deciphering Dante's "Inferno." Another featured a search for a missing play by Shakespeare. Our old friends the Knights Templar often figure in these plots. In one, as I recall, a band of knights, newly arrived from the Middle Ages, rode their mighty steeds along Park Avenue and up the steps of the Metropolitan Museum, where I took leave of them.
The latest contender in the da Vinci sweepstakes, "Codex 632," by the Portuguese journalist and novelist José Rodrigues dos Santos, focuses on the mystery surrounding the origins and life of Christopher Columbus. As dos Santos tells it, we really don't know where or when the man we call Columbus was born or what his name was. He seems to have gone to great lengths to keep his past a secret. One theory is that the "real" Christopher Columbus -- the man who went by that name, or something close to it -- was an unlettered silk weaver whose identity the great navigator borrowed. In this, of course, are echoes of the supposed mystery of Shakespeare's identity, with some arguing that William Shakespeare was a country bumpkin whose name was used by the brilliant aristocrat who wrote the plays.
Dos Santos tells his story through a Portuguese cryptologist named Thomas Noronha. At the outset, an old scholar who was investigating Columbus suddenly dies -- murdered, we know, although Noronha does not. A shadowy American foundation offers Noronha $500,000 to continue the investigation. The dead professor left behind a coded clue that must be deciphered, and after that there are ancient documents to be studied -- often forgeries -- and many esoteric mysteries to be explored.
Aside from his scholarly pursuits, the married Noronha falls into the clutches of a Swedish student named Lena whose long legs and golden curls he finds irresistible. The poor fellow cannot see what is obvious to the rest of us, that a long-legged Swede named Lena can be nothing but trouble.
The novel provides much that is of interest about Columbus and the age he lived in, but "Codex 632" has some serious flaws. The first is that scholarly information is not inherently dramatic. Much of the book involves Noronha telling another person about his research and that person expressing curiosity, amazement or disbelief. This can grow tiresome. A related problem is that the author simply has too much information he wants to share with us. It is of interest that the explorer was sometimes referred to as "Christofom Colon" and "Christoforu Colon" and other times as "Guiarra, Guerra, Colonus, Colom, Colomo, Colon, and Colón," but the author devotes page after mind-boggling page to the derivations of these names. Likewise, an occasional code or anagram may be fun, but here their solutions are stretched out interminably. At one point we digress on Jewish acronyms and elsewhere on "the ie diphthong in Spanish words." On a journey to Jerusalem, Noronha encounters the Kabbalah, which "contains the symbolic code of the mysteries of the universe," and we explore it for five pages.
Dos Santos's research is impressive, but it will overpower all but the most determined or scholarly reader. This is unfortunate, because ultimately he offers an interesting theory of who Columbus was and an amusing explanation of why certain people are determined to keep his true identity a secret even today.
The novel's other problem lies in the writing. Much of the narrative is fine, but the author (or his editor or translator) falters badly on the simple matter of how people talk. This is one of those novels in which characters are forever giggling and chuckling and scratching themselves, apparently because the writer thinks that will enliven the proceedings. Thus, early in the book, we have "Thomas chuckled to himself," whereupon long-legged Lena "giggled discreetly" "and soon thereafter "ran her tongue across her fleshy pink lips." Elsewhere, we have " 'It's a bra, silly,' she explained, arching her eyebrows in a naughty expression." Later, as two men talk, "Thomas laughed heartily" whereupon his companion "winked playfully." In Jerusalem, on one page we have "Chaim, stroking his curly beard" and "the old Jew stroked his thick white beard thoughtfully," followed soon by "Solomon, distractedly stroking his white beard." On both pages 223 and 248 we're told that our hero Noronha "scratched his chin thoughtfully."
This is lazy writing, sometimes silly writing, and it weakens the serious book about a great historical figure that the author set out to write.