Wednesday, May 17, 2006

On the Code (1)

The code? Of course I mean The Da Vinci Code. As if there could be any other code. I’m going to shamelessly join the bandwagon created by the movie and the book — yes, did you know there’s a book? Of course you knew, only the high-browed toffs wouldn’t have heard of it, and you, dear reader are no high-browed toff, are you? — and post what I wrote about the book in mid-2004 (before there was A-A-A). And no, I still haven't finished Eco's book.


Let me begin with a quick précis of the book. The protagonist is a Harvard professor of symbology (study of symbols) who finds himself the prime suspect of the murder of the curator of the Louvre museum. The curator was murdered because he is privy to the secret of the Holy Grail — that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and their descendents survive to the modern day. The protagonist is assisted by the curator’s grand daughter. Other interested parties include an eccentric British historian, a persistent French police officer, and an ultra Catholic sect. And the clue to the secret, of the Grail as well as whodunit, can be found in Leonardo Da Vinci’s work — hence the name.

The book abounds with these clues. For instance, the Star of David apparently symbolises the yin and the yang in perfect harmony. Or the Fibonacci sequence, the sequence of numbers 2, 3, 5, 8…. where each number is the sum of the 2 numbers preceding it, and the ratio of each number to its preceding one is the inverse of the ratio plus one, and this ratio approaches 1.61 as the sequence approaches infinity, and this limit, phi, is abundant in nature (it’s the ratio of your height from head to toe to your navel’s height), so abundant indeed that the ancients called it the divine number. Now these are nice trivia to know, I guess to impress girls in parties. Well, I think so anyway, but I digress. Back to the book.

Some of the things discussed in the book are true (the Fibonacci sequence for instance). Others I’m not so sure about: google suggests conflicting stories about the Priory of Sion or the Templar Knights. And I definitely don’t know enough about the early Christian history to have a view on what Jesus really did or did not do in the 1st century. Jesus being intimate with Mary Magdalene is not a particularly new idea: Scorcese did a movie on that theme. There are more interesting twists on Jesus: Bulgakov had Jesus as Pontius Pilate’s herbalist, Charles McCarry has him being a Roman agent provocateur, and then there is always Life of Brian.

But all this is beside the point as this is not a book on the origin of Christianity or a meditation on the meaning of it all. The Economist says it’s no Foucault’s Pendulum. And that it is not. Whereas that book I failed to finish despite half a dozen attempts over the past few years, this book was read within a weekend.

And that is because it’s a ripping yarn. Sure, the characters are two dimensional, but that’s alright, because you want to see whodunit. In fact, the characters are made for movie — the protagonist is described as resembling Harrison Ford. It’s a good action-adventure book. Action-adventure book? Yes, as in a book that you’d want to watch in the big screen. It’s a page turner. Short, sharp sentences, and crisp, if somewhat wooden dialogues. But, once again, you don’t care, because, yes, you want to know whodunit.

It’s a formula book, but it’s a formula that works. How? I think that a murder mystery stands or falls on this: can you figure out whodunit half way through the yarn? If you can, then it’s crap. Can you in this one? Well, I thought I knew who the bad guy was fairly early on. But then I wasn’t so sure. Then, just about when I was convinced it’s not who I think it is, bang! Mr Brown keeps you guessing, and thus, the book works. In that respect, it’s right up there with the best of Crichton, Forsythe or Harris.