Book Review: ‘The Book of God and Physics: A Novel of the Voynich Mystery'

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By Ross King
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, June 8, 2009


A Novel of the Voynich Mystery

By Enrique Joven

Translated from the Spanish by Dolores M. Koch

Morrow. 347 pp. $25.99

The poetic Spanish title of Enrique Joven's second novel, "El Castillo de las Estrellas" ("The Castle of the Stars"), has been given a Richard Dawkins-friendly title by its American publishers, which suggests a clash between religion and science. The provocative change isn't unwarranted. Joven, a physicist, writes in his introduction that he wants to "delve imaginatively into certain circumstances . . . that attempt to undermine the credibility of science itself." This delving isn't entirely imaginative, since he admits to having "used real people and situations" to make his case (one hopes the publisher's lawyers have taken a good look at the text).

Defending the credibility of science isn't the most auspicious premise for a novel. More often, writers like to show the mayhem that scientific arrogance wreaks on the world. But Joven has put together a fine recipe for a thriller. The book's subtitle tags the real-life Voynich Manuscript, whose history the narrator describes as "a cocktail of hieroglyphics, emperors, astrologers, and, to top it all, Jesuit priests." The inspiration for numerous books and even more Web sites, the Voynich is the world's most mysterious manuscript. Not a single word of the 240-page text, probably written in the 1400s and now housed in Yale University's Beinecke Library, is understood. It has stumped even the U.S. government's top military cryptologists.

A scramble to decipher the Voynich Manuscript places Joven's novel in the race-against-time-to-unlock-a-secret-code-and-foil-an-evil-cult genre that has been one of the most popular of the Noughties. His hero is Father Hector, a 30-something Jesuit priest and high school math and physics teacher in rural Spain. When not trying in vain to interest his students in Newton and Kepler, Hector spends his free time logging on to his computer to keep in touch with other Voynich fanatics. His interest in deciphering the manuscript becomes more acute when he discovers that his school, part of an old Jesuit monastery, has some obscure connection with the Voynich and that the entire property -- honeycombed with secret tunnels -- has been bought by a shadowy American company and is scheduled for demolition.

One of Hector's fellow Voynich enthusiasts, a beautiful young Mexican named Juana, turns up at the school with the news that she's been getting death threats. Hector and Juana, with the help of another of Hector's cyberfriends, an English astronomer named John, try to crack the Voynich code before the school's appointment with the wrecking ball. They also try to untangle the manuscript's bewildering history. The science and history lessons come fast and furious: Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, history of the Jesuits, Paracelsus and alchemy, John Dee and Edward Kelley, the Prague of Rudolph II, the laws of planetary motion, the Gregorian calendar. Luckily, Joven's lively expository prose (given in Dolores M. Koch's smooth and efficient translation) stops the book from collapsing under its own weight a la Umberto Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum."

Hector takes diverting trips to Rome and the Canary Islands (where we're treated to a fascinating tour of a high-tech astronomical observatory). But he actually spends most of his time reading Wikipedia articles on his computer or instant-messaging his cyberbuddies. He's not so much an armchair detective as a double-click detective, a Mycroft Holmes for the digital age. How does he respond when a new clue unexpectedly turns up? "I went up to my room and started surfing frantically on the Internet." James Bond he most certainly isn't, though he does finally tear himself away from Wikipedia long enough for some derring-do in a suitably atmospheric castle.

The Jesuits aren't the villains in this clash between God and physics. Joven's target is the real-life Discovery Institute, an American think-tank that promotes the theory of intelligent design. The author, no less than his narrator, is also enraged by Joshua Gilder and his wife, Anne-Lee, who wrote "Heavenly Intrigue: Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe, and the Murder Behind One of History's Greatest Scientific Discoveries." This popular history, published in 2004, uses modern forensics to build an intriguing (but hardly airtight) case for Kepler's having poisoned his mentor, Brahe, to lay his hands on his valuable astronomical data.

Few historical celebrities are safe from this kind of CSI-style forensic finger-pointing. Ancient whodunits are solved and peccadilloes of character supposedly explained, from who killed King Tut to whether Napoleon was a martyr to hypogonadism. However, Joven is strangely outraged at Kepler's treatment by the Gilders. (Even an institution as honorable as The Washington Post Book World comes into the cross-hairs for supposedly giving the book a "cloying, not to say openly biased" review.) What's Joven's objection to the book? "One of the most respected figures in the intellectual history of Europe was converted in their writings to a delinquent," fumes his narrator.

The idea that a genius can also be a delinquent should surely appeal to a novelist or historian. As George Orwell wrote of Salvador Dalí: "One ought to be able to hold in one's head simultaneously the two facts that Dalí is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being. The one does not invalidate or, in a sense, affect the other." Some of that complexity of character and motive is missing from this clever blend of fact and fiction in which the former is often more compelling than the latter.

King's most recent book is "Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power."

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