The Common Good
July-August 2003

Literary Art

by Jo Ann Heydron | July-August 2003

I avoid movies with car chases and wish more television heroes were not
both handsome and single. In my reading, however, I tend to be more open-minded.

I avoid movies with car chases and wish more television heroes were not both handsome and single. In my reading, however, I tend to be more open-minded. And that's lucky, since I might otherwise have missed this fascinating book. Dan Brown's new novel, The Da Vinci Code, may sport a handsome, single hero and be loaded with car chases, but it will also drive the reader to look around her, in Western art and church history, for what she may well have missed: evidence of her own sanctity.

One of the two main plot lines we alternately follow involves discovering who is ultimately responsible for a murder in the Louvre, committed on page one by an albino monk. The other traces the solution of far more interesting puzzles by (handsome and single) Harvard professor of religious symbology Robert Langdon—accused by the French police of having committed the murder—and his newly acquired colleague, French cryptologist Sophie Neveu. (Neveu, at least, has some counter-cultural appeal: Her beauty is not "waifish" but "healthy" and "unembellished.") Written in short, suspenseful chapters, the book's narrative drive is all the more remarkable because it contains a skeletal history of a real secret society, of which Leonardo da Vinci and other icons of Western culture are said to have been members. Langdon believes that the secret this society has guarded since its inception is the nature and location of a legendary Christian relic.

A late-night novel for the brainy, The Da Vinci Code is more accessible than The Flanders Panel and The Club Dumas—similar puzzle-centered thrillers by Arturo Pérez-Reverte—and it offers far more to chew on than an Indiana Jones movie. I'd like to say Langdon is nothing like Indiana Jones, but this wouldn't be entirely true: He resists driving getaway cars because he can't use a clutch, and, for the most part, he leaves gun-handling to others. But at crucial moments he comes up with quick-draw answers to the book's many ciphers and riddles, and, of course, Neveu is inevitably drawn to him.

Brown's several references to important works of art had me leafing through prints at the library. It is quite true, for example, that the man seated at Jesus' right hand in da Vinci's "The Last Supper" is not a man at all. The book may encourage you to rent Stanley Kubrick's last film, Eyes Wide Shut, so you can take a closer look at the sexual rites. (So far I have resisted the impulse.) I wonder, too, if The Da Vinci Code will swell the crowds at the Louvre in the same way that Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon sent a new crop of pilgrims to Glastonbury.

There's enough fact in this book that you'll want to find the line where fiction begins. That exact location still eludes me, even after I spent an uncharacteristic amount of time on the Internet looking for information. For example, there appears to be no field or professor of religious symbology at Harvard. Opus Dei, the Catholic sect to which our murderous—and masochistic—albino monk belongs, seems on its home page (for what that's worth) to be about as dangerous as a women's auxiliary or Rotary Club (though many would disagree). At a time when official announcements inspire immediate doubt, and conspiracy theorists begin to look like the only sane people around, Brown's book will touch a nerve.

Here's one fact of which I'm sure: While at my local library in April looking at art books, I noted that 50 holds had already been placed on The Da Vinci Code.

Jo Ann Heydron, who lives in Palo Alto, California, writes fiction and poetry.

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