A cross between The Name of the Rose and The DaVinci Code—that is what I came up with to describe my latest pleasure read, The Secret Supper by Javier Sierra. This isn’t a new title on the market; this book was originally published in 2004 by Plaza & Janés in Spain, and translated into English and published in 2006 by Simon & Schuster, Inc. I found this book on the free discard rack at my local library, and could tell right away it was a book for me—how could I refuse a cross-genre suspense-thriller, murder-mystery, historical-fiction novel that involves monks and art and the tarot during the Renaissance? Especially after reading a Preface like this one:
“In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Europe still held intact its gift for understanding ancestral images and symbols. Its people knew how and when to interpret the design on a column, a particular figure in a painting or a sign on the road, even though only a minority had, in those days, learned to read and write.
“With the arrival of the Age of Reason, the gift for interpreting such language was lost, and with it, a good part of the richness bequeathed to us by our ancestors.
“This book makes use of many of those symbols as they were conceived once upon a time. But it also intends to restore to the modern reader the ability to understand them and to benefit from their infinite wisdom.”
That sounds like an interesting theory. And while the book truly is a work of fiction (into that a bit later) here is what the author bio had to say:
“Javier Sierra lives in Málaga on the Costa del Sol, Spain. He has written on the secrets of the Templars, the mystical nun María Jesús of Ágreda and the enigmas of lost civilizations. All of his novels have a “secret” common purpose: to solve historical mysteries based on real documentation and extensive field research. A bestseller throughout the Spanish-speaking world. The Secret Supper is now being published in thirty-five countries.”
Okay, I’m hooked. Sounds like my kind of book. Thus ensued my latest literary escapade. I came to the conclusion that it’s certainly not as eloquent as The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, and it’s not really as adventurous or nail-biting as The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown. Still, there are surprises, and characters that you don’t think are who they are. There’s a point in the book where I started to wonder whether the narrator-protagonist was actually the bad guy! The Cathars feature prominently (and don’t fare very well in the body count). And unlike The DaVinci Code, Leonardo DaVinci actually plays a central character in this novel—we get to know him fairly well (as imagined by the author, that is). Which brings me to a discussion about the supposed historical “real documentation” involved in this book. In truth, a person really has to call this book historical fiction—with emphasis on the “fiction.” Yes, places, people, and famous works of art are all embroiled in this book, and while some of Leonardo’s eccentricities and affinity for puzzles and ciphers are exploited for the story-telling value of this book, heavy license is taken in confabulating details. In Sierra’s world, the Cathar movement was not, apparently, extinguished but thrives in the region around Milan, and more characters than you’d think are members of the persecuted milieu, including Leonardo DaVinci himself, who mostly creates all his artwork as secret messages in support of the community of believers. Thus, the biggest riddle is what message he’s hiding in the amazing masterpiece in the refectory right under the noses of the Dominicans and a member of the Inquisition itself. You’d think somebody would just ask the guy—he’s right there the whole time, after all. But, no, Leonardo maintains his mysterious mystique throughout the entire book, unscathed by the investigation and murder victims falling down all around him.
I suppose, we humans are always trying to find deeper meaning in things. It’s our nature. And as a tarot reader, it’s literally our job to find meaning in images. But as you can see below, sometimes people project a lot onto something—in this case, Leonardo DaVinci’s Last Supper. And who’s to say that they’re wrong? But it seems like a lot of energy to determine something that we can no longer ask the creator of the painting. Sierra takes several of these projections that have been made over the years, and conveniently uses them to embellish his best-selling novel…
Lots of people, knowing Leonardo DaVinci’s reputation, have sought deeper conspiracies in his artworks in real life. So the puzzle that Sierra invents is very creative, but in the end, not earth-shattering, and doesn’t seem worth all the loss of life in the story. It all hinges on the underground Cathar movement, and whether you’re one of “them” or one of “us.” And in the Renaissance, and after the Inquisition, and during the turmoil of whether popes had as much power as they wanted, a heretical movement undoubtedly might have inspired more or less hysteria and violence than this book has portrayed.
A tarot card—the Priestess—features as one of the clues, related to another clue, that is somehow meant to reveal the identity of a secret informer. But it’s not really developed well through the book, and is only tidily wrapped-up at almost the very end, thereby just kind of lingering and hanging, dangling throughout the whole book as a kind of—literally—undecipherable tease.
The Priestess card is conveniently used to hide a symbol of the Cathar underground, not at all relating to it’s true meaning. Pope Joan—depicted on the card—is inferred as real, and is also depicted as being a Cathar sympathizer. Bonifacio Bembo, the creator of the Sforza tarot, is also conveniently noted as a member of the ever-expanding-to-ridiculous-proportions Cathar family, and thus the entire symbolism of the tarot suddenly becomes imagery to hide the Cathar movement, thus the Gnostic mysteries, thus the cult of St. John and Mary Magdelene., thus… oh geez. What’s more, Sierra employs a scenario where the Bembo-Sforza deck is a commonplace item (and not a specially consigned, high-end painted deck for the Sforza family), a deck to which every one seems to have access, since the Priestess card is repeatedly left behind as a calling card, or referred to from any old handy deck laying around. This is probably the most egregious of Sierra’s historical faux-pas.
Ironically, Sierra gets theories of Egyptian influence into the mix, through an assistant to Pope Alexander VI, a rather obsessed fanatic of ancient mysteries who curries favor with the pope through flattery, and expands his own interest in precious relics using Rome’s checkbook. But at least—as is likely in real life, too—this notion is framed as the invention of someone who is trying every which way to create connections to ancient mysticism that do not exist.
While it’s easy for someone like me to pick at the details of Sierra’s historical references —someone who reads a lot of academic historical research himself and has opinions about the information—we have to remember that the novel is meant to be purely entertaining. And it is. I’d recommend this book to anyone looking for light reading, and anyone who enjoys suspense-thrillers. Depending on your puzzle affability, you may or may not be able to crack some of the clues before the author reveals them—as I was able to do. But the author is still able to maintain the reader’s attention, and create a bit of suspense, and to tell a good tale.