GOD IS DEAD. Or maybe Nietzsche said it for the sake of Dan Brown.
And the ghost haunts the museums and cathedrals of Europe. It hides behind the frames of a masterpiece in the Louvre or Guggenheim. Its footsteps echo in the staircase winding down to the candlelit crypt of an ancient basilica in Barcelona. It seeks new haunts, as varied as royal palaces and tech labs. It whispers shattering truths to panicking princes. It laughs from the machine as the scientist thinks. It adds a sense of foreboding to the poetry of Dante and Blake. Its longing for home continues in science, religion, architecture and art.
Dan Brown semaphores its wanderings.
In popular culture, it’s the biggest enterprise in re-mystifying faith and knowledge, science and aesthetics. Step into a church with Brown as your guide—and don’t expect any literary flourish from tour guides—and you really don’t realise how he aggravates your awe. The patterns become an invitation. The frescoes, a teaser. And every enclosed space, an unrevealed truth.
Or take a museum trip with him, and you won’t be looking at The Last Supper with the same certainty any longer. Classical art is best appreciated as a palimpsest, a layered passage to a message, or that’s what the guide, in such pedantic clarity, tells you. What you see is an elaborate deception, and when you look closely, with some assistance from the guide, it gives a clue to a scriptural conspiracy, a historical whodunit, or a sacred betrayal. The mysterious sustains life, and art aggravates it.
And it takes a Dan Brown to make multi-million thrillers out of it. This change of scene, the most definitive one after the fallen Iron Curtain, brought an ‘evil’ era in international thrillers to an end. It was a morality tale on steroids, and the Evil Imperium was destined to lose to the smarter Freedom country. In the Cold War played out on the page, mystery flowed from the barrel of a gun, and the villain invariably spoke with a Russian accent. The chase, and the shadow play, was all about domination. (It still is, even though the scene— and the accent—has changed).
No action hero emerged from the ruins of the Berlin Wall, and any attempt to make one with an Arabic or a Persian accent did not stir the market. The Islamist resurgence that followed the collapse of communism was loud and in your face. Nothing was left unsaid. There was no intricacy; there was no KBG; and the suicide bomber, in spite of being dramatic, was not as stealthy or suspenseful as the assassin in a grey suit. The jihad, literally, is an open Book.
The remains of the last great Evil, whether it is Pyongyang or Havana, were too much of a comic strip to provide the necessary ballast to a thriller. More Orwell or Adam Johnson territory than Forsyth country. Strangely, China remains inaccessible—or incomprehensible—to the thriller writer, even though Zhongnanhai is no less intriguing than the Kremlin. Maybe the mystery is so deep that it requires a science fiction classic like The Three-Body Problem to make some sense of it.
Then began the Nordic Boom, and the action hero went metaphysical. We hardly heard any gunshots, or maybe we were too immersed in the mind game to be distracted, and the atmospherics untouched by the sun only added to the melancholic horror. The girl with the dragon tattoo was more tortured a soul than those around her with deadlier secrets. If you were still looking for action, there was Jack Reacher, and truth be told, Lee Child can still write a set piece on the passage of a bullet from the mouth of a gun to its target spanning less than a second. What was missing was the big context, bigger ideas.
The code-breaker came next. There are people out there still talking about his bad documentary style, about his lazy adjectives. Who cares, really? He is not writing it, maybe not even telling it, he is merely keying it in on his supercomputer. There are so many better writers around, he knows, but there is no arcana junky with a memory—programmed?—more ‘eidetic’, to use one of his favourite words, than his. The Brahmins laugh at him, and even when they condescend, they have to add ‘guilty’ to their ‘pleasure’. When the first Harry Potter came out, it was adults who made it a sensation, but in the London Underground, they covered the cover of their ‘guilt’. (One reason why Kindle is very convenient for the guilty reader today.)
Brown just connects the dots, and the dots are chosen cunningly—and at times mischievously—from the past, the present and the future: histories of the sacred and the profane in art and religion; symbols lost in everydayness; and the leaps of technology. The best of Brown’s oeuvre is revisionist Christianity as a detective story, and the Church may call it anti-God noir. As he traced the bloodline of Jesus in The Da Vinci Code, the idea of the sacred feminine shattered the established assumptions of the church, and he made Leonardo da Vinci a partner in crime. Even if voluminous, a Brown novel is perhaps the shortest of chase thrillers, the real action not exceeding a long night. So far, apart from identifying Jesus’ descendant, he has exposed a plot against the Vatican, dwelt on the Freemasonic structure of power in Washington, and given a Dante touch to population control. While so doing, he has taken the reader on a conducted tour across cults and secret societies with names such as Illuminati, Priori of Sion, Transhumanists…
Three years ago, when I met Brown in Delhi, I asked him about his journey through the darker, secret alleys of religion. I asked him whether it was a mark of dissent or scepticism. “Dogmatic religion doesn’t sit well with me. My mother encouraged me to question religion; and my father was a mathematician. So there were both religion and science in my family. I believe that the Bible is a collection of stories heavily edited to create a certain picture which is not totally accurate.”
In Origin, his new novel, the family inheritance takes a devastating turn. Religion meets science to reimagine life on this planet. It starts with a bang: Edmund Kirsch, maverick techie billionaire and futurist, is assassinated in the middle of his presentation at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. He had an incendiary answer to the questions: Where do we come from? Where are we going? Predictably, the Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, a friend and admirer of the mad genius, is there. It cannot be otherwise: The professor is always at the wrong place at the wrong moment, though, this time, he doesn’t make his entry in his customary tweed jacket.
The long night begins. The professor gets his mandatory companion, and this time it’s the future queen of Spain. Suddenly a painting or a sculpture in the museum reveals an ominous pattern. A meeting in the library of a monastery in Catalonia sets off a sinister sequence of events. A rabbi and an Imam vanish. An assassin finds his god in the anti-pope of the Palmarian Church. The organic architecture of Antoni Gaudi, immortalised by Casa Mila and the Basilica of Sagrada Familia, adds to the quest for the last truth. A bishop and a king reveal a secret at a place stigmatised by Franco’s memory. William Blake provides a forty seven-word password to unlock humanity’s destiny. And, well, Winston Churchill is Artificial Intelligence at its best—and worst. What’s more, the whizz-kid in the Royal Palace of Madrid is named Suresh Bhalla. Along the way, codes and symbols are thrown in to accelerate the narrative. Even the logos of Uber and FedEx are not the same any longer.
In Delhi, when I asked Brown about his fascination with secret passages, he told me: “The house me and my wife built in Boston has five or six secret passages, which others can’t see. There are mysterious bookshelves and spinning paintings. I like everything that is hidden. I like secrets.” In Dan Brown country, secrets are codified, and a code carries within it ‘an intention or awareness’.
Where do we come from? And where are we going? That’s the question Churchill may ask a futurist and a code-reader. Dan Brown is not just mischievous. He’s damn serious, and for Chrissake, why Churchill?