Near-optimal mix

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown; Transworld Publishers; Price: Rs.246; 604 pp

It’s been no.1 on the New York Times list of best-selling fiction for an unprecedented 60 weeks. Travel agents are offering itineraries in France and England based upon the journeys of the protagonists of this novel. A big budget Hollywood movie, certain to be a box-office blockbuster, is in the making. Even allowing for multinational hoopla and sales promotion for which Americans are justly famous, there’s no disputing that this less-than-literary masterpiece (which is selling out in bookstores in this poor third world country as well) has a mysterious all-embracing appeal which merits investigation, particularly by Indian writers of fiction.

Quite clearly despite his uninspiring nom de plume, Dan Brown, an alumnus of the blue-chip Amherst College, former teacher of English and creative writing and also the author of previously unheard titles such as Digital Fortress and Angels and Demons has learned from past experience. The Da Vinci Code features a near-optimal mix of religion, art, popular history, travel, conspiracy and code-breaking. In retrospect, a can’t-fail bookstore formula for which the author deserves full marks and congratulation.

Told plainly as a mere story, this compulsive page-turner is embarrassingly straight-forward. The book begins with the brutal ritual murder of Jacques Sauniere, a 76-year-old curator of the famous Louvre Museum in Paris (which houses Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous painting The Mona Lisa). Earlier, some days before his murder Sauniere had trunk-called Dr. Robert Langdon professor of religious symbology at Harvard University and arranged to meet with him in Paris. So instead of meeting with Sauniere, the learned professor is hauled out of bed in the dead of night to be taken to the scene of the ritual murder which is littered with arcane religious symbols and clues.

It soon becomes apparent that Sauniere was a high priest of the Priory of Sion, a pan-European secret society (est.1099) whose members included notables such as British scientist Sir Isaac Newton, Italian painter Sandro Botticelli, French writer Victor Hugo and of course the eponymous Leonardo Da Vinci. This society has nourished and kept alive a secret which contradicts some fundamental tenets of Christianity and in his dying moments, Sauniere scratches out several clues which lead the debonair professor to proof of the secret of the 900-year-old Priory of Sion to which Leonardo Da Vinci has hinted in his great works of art including The Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.

But if through the agency of the learned Harvard professor this ancient religious society is ready to reveal its hitherto well-kept secret, the Vatican has a lot to lose in terms of its structure and hierarchy and its traditional domination by male clerics and cardinals. The task of maintaining the several millennia-old status quo within Christianity is assumed by Opus Dei, an ultra-conservative Vatican prelature headed by Bishop Arginarossa who quite evidently has papal ambitions. The assassination of Sauniere on the eve of his passing on the secret of the Priory to Langdon is the handiwork of Silas, a brainwashed albino controlled by the good bishop who bona fide wishes to strengthen the Holy See’s true foundations which are endangered by the stunning secret of the Priory of Sion.

Inevitably, Silas accomplishes but half his mission. He fails to get his big hot hands on the all-important cryptex — a cylindrical stone container with a coded locking device which will self-destruct if forced open — which contains proof that the true history of Jesus and his disciples was hijacked by St. Paul, Christianity’s first and most famous apostle, and rewritten to exclude the vital role of Jesus’ female disciples, particularly Mary Magdalene (popularly portrayed as a fallen woman) from the approved gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke etc).

Predictably the cryptex which contains the story of the alternate life of Jesus Christ and his ministry is found — after the unravelling of numerous mysteries, conundrums, anagrams and puzzles by the good professor who is joined in his quest by Sauniere’s granddaughter Sophie who had distanced herself from him many years ago after she stumbled upon a graphic celebration of the "sacred feminine" starring her grandfather. Together the chastely romantic pair follow and interpret every clue which leads them from the Louvre to Westminster Abbey, London and back before they decipher the magic words which enable them to unlock the secret of the cryptex.

Narrated as a straightforward tale, there’s little that is remarkable of this Harry Potter story for grown-ups. Indeed in building up the budding romance between Langdon and Sophie, the author is embarrassingly gauche. Moreover the device of using italics to depict the inner voices of the protagonists and characters is quite annoying, if not downright down market.

Therefore how does one explain the runaway success of The Da Vinci Code? It’s quite obviously the near-perfect mix of religious controversy or controlled blasphemy (there are over 2 billion Christians worldwide), history, popular art, conspiracy and problem solving which does the trick. At a period in history when in an incrementally stressful and complicated world there is renewed interest in religion and spiritual panaceas (as also evidenced by the success of the feature film The Passion), this is a good time to speculate about the male domination of the clergy within Christianity when Jesus himself was unusually accepting of women during his ministry. True there is room within the clergy for the sisterhood of nuns, but the conclave of cardinals in Rome as also the leaderships of the Protestant sects are overwhelmingly male.

Was a cover up and conspiracy engineered by St. Paul and the apostles after the crucifixion, to downgrade the role of women during Jesus’ ministry, and in particular to suppress the "sacred feminine"? And how plausible is it that some of the master spirits of the European Rennaissance who were aware of the alternate history of Jesus Christ but subservient to the powerful clergy, incorporated subtle clues about their awareness in their enduring works of art? That’s the heady ingredient of this religious history thriller which has other elements so well mixed in it that The Da Vinci Code has not only become a global bestseller, but has spawned several connected industries. And it’s quite likely that after reading this book you’ll never view The Mona Lisa or reproductions thereof, in quite the same way again.
Dilip Thakore

Rich in history

The Miniaturist by Kunal Basu; Penguin Books; Price: Rs.250; 245 pp

Imagine turning the clock back four centuries and finding oneself in the dust-swept sandstone environs of the city of Agra during the reign of the great Mughal emperor Akbar. Except that you are not in the court of the emperor, but in the company of the king’s artists in the kitabkhana, the royal atelier headed by the Khwaja — the master artist — who supervises the fascinating world of miniature paintings in the emperor’s palace. At the beginning of the novel, the Khwaja and the chief clerk of the kitabkhana — the Darogha — are examining a painting and are reminded of one of the greatest miniature artists of their time, Kamal-al-Din-Buhzad, after whom the Khwaja’s son Bihzad is named.

Bihzad is a gifted young artist: "From the day he could hold a pen, the boy drew fluently." He draws ambitiously conceived and unusual portraits of people around him with great ease, his ambition and talent often prompting him to experiment with unusual variations in standard portraitures of the time. A born rebel, Bihzad, the forerunner of the contemporary newspaper cartoonist, paints portraits that caricature powerful people.

Bizhad comes of age at the time when Emperor Akbar is planning to shift his capital from Agra to Fatehpur Sikri, ‘The City of Victory’. Akbar decides to commission a work to commemorate his reign, The Akbarnama, and is on the lookout for the best artist for this assignment. The Khwaja is almost certain that his gifted son will be selected but is unaware of a deviant streak in his son’s personality. Bihzad has been secretly creating paintings with overt homosexual themes that depict Akbar and himself as lovers. Bihzad’s enemy, the Afghan artist Adili spreads word of these secret paintings, and when the news reaches the royal ear, Bihzad is banished from the court into exile.

Censorship is commonplace in the world of books and art. There’s hardly an important author today who has not encountered censorship in some form. Coming as it does in the wake of the Rushdie affair, The Miniaturist raises the issue of (homo)sexual subjects in art and the price the artist has to pay for depicting it on canvas. But the author passes lightly over such sensitive material, and the issue of arbitrary, subjective censorship surprisingly remains unaddressed in the novel. We are shown only the execution of the sentence against Bihzad which nobody questions. Unknown to him, a missionary, Father Alvarez, makes his way to Fatehpur Sikri to beg a royal pardon for the errant artist.

This, however makes for an anti-climax ending in a novel centred upon the censorship and exile of the artist. After Bihzad is banished from Akbar’s kingdom, he travels with a caravan of merchants towards Samarkhand in the north and arrives in Hazari — the city of a thousand wells — ruled by Haji Uzbek. Here he meets a gallery of new characters and is befriended by Hilal Khan, a eunuch. Bihzad initially vows to give up painting and lies about his identity while he lives among slaves and slave owners in this desert land, miles away from anything resembling civilisation, and, of course, art. But his craft soon beckons and he turns to art once again, free for the first time from the constraints of Akbar’s kitabkhana.

As years pass by, he marries Zuhra, daughter of Haji Uzbek, but painting still remains his principal passion. Unfortunately, the author fails to convey to his reader the full ramifications of Bihzad’s predicament: his ‘sin’, banishment, and subsequent redemption through art. Nor is the theme of homosexuality fully examined and addressed, although Basu fills his tale with sexual deviants. The exact import of the transgressive sexual liaisons between some of the characters rarely comes through. As a result, the plot of the novel is awkwardly separated from its main themes, and the reader is deprived of the satisfaction of being able to make the necessary connections between events and their implications.

In the third part of the novel, an earthquake strikes Hazari, killing most of its population. Bihzad is compelled to flee the city which had been his sanctuary for nearly 40 years, and feigns blindness. He lives like a blind man, until he gets word that Akbar is on his death bed. He makes his way back to Agra to discover that the sentence against him had been repealed after he was banished, thanks to the intervention of the do-good missionary, Father Alvarez. This ending turns out to be somewhat anti-climactic.

The Miniaturist is rich in emotion and hidden passions. Akbar, however, who plays a vital role in determining Bihzad’s fate, is relegated to the background and is hardly ever portrayed directly, leaving us with a profound sense of the irony of his absence. The novel raises more questions than it answers. But if you’re looking for a captivating read, rich in history and shenanigans of the court, The Miniaturist is certainly worth reading.

Meenakshi Venkat