Code read: when Dan Brown met Dante

Dan Brown’s new novel sets his indestructible hero against the problem of overpopulation – which is funny, given that most of the world seems to have read his books


There are 7.085 billion people – and counting – on Earth, and it seems as if most of them own a Dan Brown novel. It isn’t everyone who, in the course of their lifetime, will manage to attract a cult following while enraging both the higher office of the Catholic Church and a bewildered flock of literary critics.

“The saddest phrase I have ever heard” was Anthony Lane’s glum assessment of the appearance of a “half-eaten power lunch” in The Da Vinci Code , the 2003 publishing phenomenon that contained the mother of all conspiracy theories about art and the identity of Jesus Christ.

Now Robert Langdon, the befuddled hero and Harvard professor of symbology, is back, this time delving into the works of Dante and narrowly avoiding mayhem and murder as he dashes through passageways and hidden rooms in Florence.

In Inferno Brown has again married precious art and ephemeral codes to produce a fiendishly absorbing and highly fanciful yarn that manages to raise questions about one of the most important issues of the day: our overcrowded planet.

“I hope it provokes debate,” Brown says at his hotel in New York. He had spent the previous evening at an event at Lincoln Center, a launch that was streamed live to his legions of fans across the US in anticipation of another global frenzy of interest in his fiction.

“Look, the population is climbing dramatically. We are adding 200,000 to this planet every day. In one lifetime the population on the planet has tripled, and there is enormous concern that the social problems we consider the most dire, whether water pollution or human health, are all keyed to overpopulation. I wish I had the solution. If I did I wouldn’t write novels: I would go and work for the WHO or the World Relations Council.”

For a mild-mannered, pleasant guy, Brown has a talent for upsetting people. The Da Vinci C ode was so contrary and blasphemous to fundamental Catholic belief that deep in the bowels of the Vatican there is surely some dartboard adorned with a Dan Brown publicity shot. He argues that his latest creation has little to do with the Vatican.

“But even if I wrote a nice book about the Vatican I doubt I would get invited to dinner,” he says cheerfully.

Still, the central tension within Inferno concerns the obsession of the person the dustjacket describes as “a brilliant scientist” with recalibrating the world’s population by manipulating nature’s unfailing method: a plague epidemic. The less drastic alternative is, of course, an issue central to Catholic belief: birth control.

Brown’s views on that issue will do nothing to get him back on the Christmas-card list.

“Certainly the idea that we should not prevent pregnancies . . . We are a smart species that has the good fortune to control our numbers because we can reason things out. I think it is dangerous when you have an institution as powerful as the Catholic Church telling people that it is against God’s will for us to protect our own species from overpopulation.”

And, oops, he did it again. In the 460 pages of Inferno it falls to Langdon to unravel not just the series of codes and allusions he discovers in Dante but also the visions that trouble him in the early part of the book.

He is joined by Sienna Brooks, the doctor who treats him when he wakes up suffering from a head wound and amnesia in a Florentine hospital. She helps him through the muddy phases of the first clues and soon finds herself tearing through the fabled streets and sights of Florence with half the police force on her tail.

The book contains grounds for the complaints that are habitually flung in Brown’s direction. Brown has Langdon reiterate the plot more often than Fred in Scooby Doo , and already the cynics have delighted in the peculiar sentence structure that has left him ripe for parody.

Several sentences stop you dead. The best of all appears on page 32, when the Harvard man takes pause for breath to check himself out in the mirror. “As Langdon stared into his own weary eyes, he half-wondered if he might at any moment wake up in his reading chair at home, clutching an empty martini glass and a copy of Dead Souls , only to remind himself that Bombay Sapphire and Gogol should never be mixed.”

If that isn’t a slyly cocked finger at the guardians of literature, then it is still great fun. And maybe the implicit suggestion is that Bombay Sapphire has a perfect tonic in Dan Brown.

Plus, we shouldn’t forget that Langdon is suffering from an understandable haziness after having been told that a bullet had grazed his skull. He’s entitled to the odd mixed-up thought or two.

He is a likeable hero, if disturbingly chaste; 200 pages in, there isn’t a hint of a romp, mainly because old Langdon is too busy solving stuff and diving into his wonderfully eclectic reference bank. At one stage he even mentions Logan ’s Run , both the book and movie. “If Langdon recalled correctly, the movie version of Logan’s Run had increased the termination age from 21 to 30, no doubt in an attempt to make the film more palatable to the box office’s crucial 18-25 demographic.”

Brown’s ability to have his hero take trippy little detours like that while moving the plot along at a cracking pace and introducing millions of readers to clandestine codes, ancient manuscripts and long-dead artists is the key to his mass appeal. It is also the key to why he has attracted such trenchant criticism.

“A lot of the reviews are perplexing,” Brown says in a tone of light regret. “It seems like the wrong person chose to write the review. If someone can’t stand what I do, it doesn’t make sense that they would try and explain it. Look, you create something that is to your taste. The point was, it is almost as if they were angry that so many people were reading the book. I wish everyone loved what I do, but that is not a realistic aspiration. And the reviews . . . they don’t hurt me. That is just the way it is in the creative arts.”

Coping with fame
His even temper has helped him to cope with the fame. He witnessed the Da Vinci phenomenon when he took a beach holiday with his wife a few months after its publication. He had a cap and glasses on and was just another white guy on the beach. He looked up and saw sunbather after sunbather reading his book and just looked across at his wife. His first three novels had hardly registered: right then, it seemed like most of the planet was reading his book. “It was surreal.”

He set out to research Inferno with the vague idea that he wanted to write about Dante. His success has opened doors: he was escorted through parts of Florentine architecture not open to the tourist hordes. And the Tuscan tourist board must be delighted by Inferno : Florence will take on a new dimension for the millions of Brown devotees who will be eager to examine the city through the eyes of Langdon.

“It was a catch-22 for me in Florence, because I was trying to keep my topic a secret. All of my books have stemmed from the thrill of seeing great artwork or architecture. In Florence I just explored the city. Then the plot started to come together. So, yes, all of these monuments do inspire what I do. The magical thing about Florence is that it is as it was. You can look down and say, right outside the Palazzo Vechio, these are the cobblestones that Michelangelo walked on.

“And when you have a platform that the success of The Da Vinci Code gave me, you do have an obligation to say something of value. I don’t presume to have an answer. But, as with T he Da Vinci Code , the dialogue is important. How can faith evolve if we are not allowed to ask questions?”

It is a reasonable point of view. Brown will visit Dublin next week as he begins a busy tour of Europe. He will undoubtedly be one of the few people on the flight not reading the new Dan Brown novel. “Right now I am an enormous fan of Malcolm Gladwell,” he says when asked about his own bedside favourites. “I love the way he uses statistics. There is order behind the chaos . . . and he has a special way of revealing that.”

Hmmm. Sounds like it could be a code.

Dublin Writers Festival hosts An Evening with Dan Brown at the National Concert Hall, in Dublin, on Monday at 8pm

Inferno is published by Bantam Press

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