Translated by Pamela Carmell
HarperCollins Publishers: New York
Translation copyright 2006 (hc)
In these days of Da Vinci Code mania, I thought I would join the free for all by reviewing, not Dan Brown’s roller coaster thriller that has even some usually thoughtful people hurling epithets at each other in various media, but a much more sedate – perhaps even sublime—novel that is every bit as subversive as Brown’s but much more erudite. Matilde Asensi’s The Last Cato was published in her native Spain in 2001 and translated into English and published in the United States earlier this year.
The novel introduces us to three unlikely heroes who are drawn from very different worlds to solve a contemporary mystery whose roots go back to the very early days of the established Church. Dr. Ottavia Salina is a brilliant paleographer (an expert in ancient writings) who, as a devout nun, works quietly and humbly in the Vatican archives; Kaspar Glauser-Roist the captain of the Swiss Guard, the famed security force of the Vatican; and Professor Farag Boswell is a Coptic Egyptian archaeologist. Together these three are summoned by the highest authorities of the Roman Catholic Church to address a growing crisis: Pieces of the True Cross (the Vera Cruz) have been disappearing from churches and cathedrals around the world. This holy relic, discovered by the mother of Emperor Constantine (who Christianized the Roman Empire in the 4th Century), is of supreme importance in the lives of millions of Christians and a breakthrough in the mystery seems to be at hand when the body of an Ethiopian man is found, his body covered in scarifications (incised tattoo-like symbols). In his possession are pieces of ancient wood thought to be some of the missing pieces of the True Cross.
The three unlikely heroes set out on a quest to solve the mystery of the stolen relics, using their academic skills as well as the captain’s professional detecting skills and his arcane expertise in deciphering the meaning of Dante’s Divine Comedy. They follow clues hidden deep within Dante’s classic to discover the existence of an ancient cult called the Staurofilakes whose sole reason for existence down through the ages is to protect the True Cross. The leader of this shadowy – perhaps imaginary?—always bears the title of “Cato.”
This brief outline of the plot may seem a bit absurd, but Asensi’s skills as a writer made this reader gladly suspend all disbelief as I joined her three protagonists as they followed Dante’s clues from Rome to the Monastery of St. Catherine of Sinai to Syracuse on Sicily to the Plains of Marathon in Greece and beyond. Unlike the Da Vinci Code, which races along at hyper speed, it seems, The Last Cato is a much more leisurely read. There are holes in the plot’s logic at times, and the main characters, while very engaging, can at times seem a bit stiff (but then we also deal with a nun who is considering leaving Holy Orders for the man with whom she is gradually falling in love!), but the book is a delight to read. It does have an element of subversives to it as the good captain of the Swiss Guard poses some telling criticisms of organized religion, especially in the form of the Roman Catholic Church. Like The Da Vinci Code, this book states clearly on the cover that this is a “novel,” and I did find it in the fiction section of my favorite book store. So no one’s faith or morals should be endangered by reading this highly entertaining and erudite piece of imaginative writing!
I give it four trowels.