I met Dan Brown at a time when the epidemic of Ebola was making the world ‘less dense’, and in a most horrible, dehumanising way. Was it, in the karmic elipse of evolution, an inevitability of nature? I’m not a Transhumanist, and the last time I saw one at play was in Dan Brown’s last book, Inferno: ‘The Transhumanist movement is about to explode from the shadows into the mainstream. One of the fundamental tenets is that we as humans have a moral obligation to participate in our evolutionary process… use our technologies to advance the species, to create better humans—healthier, stronger with higher functioning brains. Everything will soon be possible.’ We saw its cinematic, subterranean denouement in Istanbul, otherwise an unlikely destination in a world imagined by Dante, and remade for dummies by Brown.
So here he is, the lone occupant in a business room in a Delhi hotel. The day before, he delivered the Penguin annual lecture, which was reportedly attended by starry-eyed college students and others who wanted to hear about codes, symbols, religion, science and art from one of the world’s bestselling writers of— what shall we say, religious noir, quasi-metaphysical pulp? He is not exactly Robert Langdon—no Harris tweed jacket, no Mickey Mouse watch, and no brainy female partner deciphering the scroll in the corner. What he exudes this morning is the raw confidence of a man who is at the top of his form. I said form, yes. To know what exactly that is, or even before we, from the Mount Sinai of our sensibility, condemn him to the lowbrow gutters, let us accept that thrillers of the popular kind are now definitively pre-Brown and post-Brown. It’s almost saying pre-Wall and post-Wall, if we require a more historical reference.
Then: It was mostly a cat-and-mouse game between the sunny West and the bleak East, and the mouse invariably wore a Russian-made fur cap. The Cold War morality of Good versus Evil gave us some wonderful types and originals, some brooding detectives, and some action heroes, and villains hatching comic-strip geopolitical conspiracies. Post-Wall, Islam’s attempt to replace communism as the thriller theme didn’t quite work. Maybe it was a reflection of radical Islamism—and its abiding image of Osama spewing apocalypse from Mount Jihad of the Hindu Kush—itself. There were, perhaps, no smokescreens, no shadow play, and no fiction-friendly jihadi type; it was blunt and direct, too spectacular to be subtle. Of course, there is the Nordic noir, Jo Nesbø and the rest, and that’s a different story, played out in the twilight zone of the mind, not politics. With the arrival of newer stars, it is not formulaic yet. And I have no idea what Thomas Harris may do next with Hannibal Lecter. His sophistication is being missed, if not his gourmet taste.
Now: The religious noir is in vogue. Stories mined from the revisionist texts of the sacred. The charm of Christianity is that Christ—sorry, Jesus—is a character with a less than definitive back story, and the life he lived, as a man, could have been straight out of a García Márquez novel. It was a life, told by different storytellers, caught between passions and actions. And the rich literature of anti-Bible, of stories untold or suppressed, is an arcana junkie’s delight. The Western canon is unimaginable without Biblical reference; so is Western art. If we take Brown’s four bestsellers together, it is a journey through the shadow lands of religion, subterranean and labyrinthine, and the pace is so supersonic that you hardly notice the adjectives, the syntax, the whole damn language; and language, there is little left here to be condemned further by those who were appalled by Brown’s crime against literature—and popular culture. And each one of them, in the end, has a here-and-now revelation. The art, the cult, the sect, the ritual… they are facts. The war against the Vatican is not over yet (Angels and Demons). The bloodline of Jesus is still intact (The Da Vinci Code). The Freemasonic power of Washington is almost unalterable (The Lost Symbol). The mad scientist at work for a world populated by healthier, brainier human beings is a distinctive possibility (Inferno). And you are, meanwhile, being introduced to the ways of such opaque organisations and cults as the Priory of Sion, the Illuminati, Opus Dei, Freemasons, Transhumanists… Also, post-Brown, you won’t be entering the Louvre without a second glance at the pyramid; you won’t be looking at the historical landmarks of the city of Florence without sparing a thought for Dante; and you won’t be walking across Capitol Hill without being puzzled by Masonic symbolism. Faith, science and art meet in the pages of Dan Brown to reveal the other side of our biggest certainties. Not God complex, but God’s complexities sell.
That said, ‘complexities’ is not the word one would use after a conversation with Brown. These are snatches from my morning with him:
“So what do you think about the new Dan Brownish discovery, The Lost Gospel?” I ask him.
“I heard about that. And more is likely to come to support the idea that Jesus led a married life.”
“Do you believe the foundation of Christianity is still an unresolved issue?”
“I believe that Jesus was a man, and had a family. The concept of a divine Jesus does not make sense to me.”
“Remember the last pages, a dream sequence actually, of Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation, where Jesus on the cross dreams of his married life with Mary.”
“I don’t think the idea was as controversial as it was made out to be. In Christianity, the Resurrection is absolutely critical to the Church’s power, to the promise of life after death. One of the great challenges that Christianity, or any religion for that matter, faces is the tendency to read metaphorical scriptures as history.”
“So many shadowy, but utterly fascinating, organisations in your books. How do you strike a balance between fact and fiction?”
“I write novels with fictional characters who carry out fictional action in a factual landscape. For instance, the Transhumanists—H Plus—meet regularly at Harvard.”
“The big mystery in your books comes to an end with a contemporary note. In the latest, it’s about controlling evolution.”
“I don’t read much fiction. I’m fascinated with the here and now. I would never write a novel which has nothing to do with the real world. Genetic engineering, the divinity of Christ, technology of the future… I find such ideas interesting.”
“So you mostly read…”
“History, religion, philosophy, art…”
“Robert Langdon is a type. How did he happen?”
“He is an amalgamation of many people I respect. I want my hero to think his way out of a situation.”
“Why have you made him so emotionally dry, so boring?”
Brown laughs, as if I had made a personal remark, only to justify: “He is someone who is clinical in his approach to the world. There’s no room for emotional drama in his life.”
“You travel through the darker, hidden alleys of religion. Is this out of disagreement, or scepticism?”
“The dogmatic religion does not 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.”
“And you love secret passages.”
“Yes, an absolute fascination. The house me and my wife built in Boston has five or six secret passages, which others can’t see. There are mysterious book shelves and spinning paintings. I like everything that is hidden. I like secrets.”
“You are worried when they make fun of your style?”
“Some people may not share my taste and their job is to criticise me. That’s okay. I will be worried if my fans say they don’t like my book.”
Fans are happy, and so is Brown. Still, I couldn’t believe it when he told me that he couldn’t remember whether he read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, the brainiest of metaphysical thrillers with a big religious secret, featuring a semiologist as a detective. Did Jesus ever laugh? That was an incendiary question from the last pages of The Rose. Dan Brown is Eco without the metaphysics. And in his pages, you may not hear the laughter of Jesus but the giggles of his descendent, and it is a pity that the code-breaking professor cannot read that lovely lady with the rarest pedigree who helped him crack the Holy Grail. Even Indiana Jones could be romantic. Try to be not so boring next time, Mr Brown.