Dan Brown, “The Da Vinci Code”:http://www.amazon.com/Da-Vinci-Code-Dan-Brown/dp/0385504209/ref=benhourigan-co20 (2003; repr. London: Corgi, 2005), 593pp. 3/5
_This pacey but overexcitable thriller lets itself down by claiming to be more than fiction._
By now _The Da Vinci Code_ has well and truly been cracked. Reading the tale of how religious symbologist Robert Langdon races against time, accused of murder, to acquit himself and save the secrets of the holy grail from Catholic fundamentalists Opus Dei and a mysterious villain working behind the scenes, should offer few surprises. The secret of the grail, as Brown has it, is of course that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were lovers and companions, spawning a bloodline that continues into the present.
What’s most surprising about the _Da Vinci_ code is just how surprised the characters act when they find out the secret. Langdon, the book’s hero, a Harvard Professor, is suitably nonchalant, having been in on it the whole time. But, like slack-jawed American fundamentalist yokels, just about everybody else concerned is completely flabbergasted when they hear the truth. That Brown treats the Jesus/Magdalene love story as earth-shatteringly scandalous has undoubtedly prompted overly pious Christians of many different stripes to take more offense at the book than they ought. These ideas are not new. Quite apart from the inspiration that Brown took from _The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail_, revisionist Christian scholars like “Barbara Thiering”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbara_Thiering and “Bishop John Spong”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Spong have been exploring the theological ramifications of the Jesus/Magdalene story for years. Readers: be aware that these ideas are not original, and not shocking. Retain your composure.
Even when one knows the secret, though, _The Da Vinci_ code is a compelling read. Though his prose is, well, prosaic, his story is more tightly plotted, and his sentences more solidly constructed, than those of that other great blockbuster-writer of recent times, J.K. Rowling. Yet Brown does not have Rowling’s gift for evoking magic. _The Da Vinci_ code disappoints us at its ending by leaving the grail hidden. Langdon finds out exactly where it is, but declines to disturb it. Just as in the _Indiana Jones_ movies, the powerful religious artefact that draws people and events into a whirlwind around it recedes into obscurity at the finale, never to trouble the world again. But where in _Indiana Jones_ we get to see the magic of the ancient world at work, melting Nazi faces, helping Indian priests pull hearts out of helpless victims’ chests, or turning Nazis into skeletons (yes, Nazis again), in _The Da Vinci Code_ Brown is too anxious to make his story seem real to ever let magic of any kind, miraculous or merely emotional, enter the equation.
And this is where Brown really trips himself up, by making false claims that parts of his story accurately reflect historical fact. A documentary I recently saw, narrated by Tony Robinson, concluded that there was no credible evidence that the Priory of Sion, a secret brotherhood Brown credits with guarding the secrets of the grail, ever existed. Yet Brown makes this claim: “Fact: The Priory of Sion … is a real organisation.” (15) Brown also claims that “all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate,” (15) but the Rosslyn Chapel’s “official web-site”: notes that Brown’s description of a Star-of-David-shaped pathway worn into the chapel’s floor by visitors is _in_accurate.
It’s a shame, because by leaving his claims to historical veracity out, Brown could have led readers on a merry chase without exposing himself to the criticism that he misleads his readers. Not knowing what in the book is real or not makes _The Da Vinci Code_ a sort of Thomas-Pynchon-Lite, “The Crying of Lot 49”:http://www.amazon.com/Crying-Lot-49-Thomas-Pynchon/dp/0060931671/ref=benhourigan-co20 played straight, aiming to entertain rather than to befuddle its reader. And while Brown might not draw his readers into dizzying conspiracies that tempt the reader to wonder what is real, he’s far better than Pynchon at inviting his readers to learn the truths behind his tale, because he preserves the idea that there is, indeed, a truth to be found.
Brown educates his readers on the workings of Interpol, the geography of Paris, the art of Leonardo Da Vinci, the agencies of the Vatican, the Fibonacci sequence, Swiss depository banking, and myriad other points of fact. While one would be a fool to take his book as an encyclopedia, it is in its own way informative, and it is, more powerfully still, an inducement to learn. A fine achievement.