This week’s attempt at escapism was even lazier than usual, since it required no actual reading on my part but rather dipping in and out of the Audible app on my phone during the emptier moments of the day. You might call it “tactical” escapism, though I suspect it’s still just another tired synonym for procrastination. This week I decided to go for a writer I have somehow managed not to read thus far, that being Dan Brown, author of the best-selling Da Vinci Code. What can I say? The film came out before I got around to reading the book, and Dan Brown doesn’t exactly cut to the chase. Origin, one of his more recent works, does not yet have a film adaptation in the works, so it was one that had to be read. The fact that it takes place in Spain had nothing to do with it.
And on that humongous white lie, let’s dive in. Oh, and before you read on, I might add ***SPOILER ALERT*** (because it’s not an easy book to pick apart without giving away some pretty critical spoilers).
If you’ve read/seen The Da Vinci Code or Angels and Demons, you’ll already be familiar with Brown’s clever plots. Expect the same in Origin. In fact, expect a lot of what you’ve seen before: a highly suspicious bishop, a strong, silent-type hit-man with an agenda, a glamorous female sidekick, a mind-blowing secret that you have to wait until the end to discover, and Doctor Who levels of sci-fi explanation. Edmond Kirsch, a billionaire futurist and Elon Musk by another name (Musk even gets a nod at one point), announces to the world that he is going to change what it means to be human (another moment Doctor Who fans might be familiar with), but is shot by a hidden assassin before he can make his ground-breaking reveal. It’s up to Robert Langdon, Kirsch’s one-time mentor, and the director of the Guggenheim Museum and future queen of Spain, Ambra Vidal, to finish the job, racing against the clock to deliver Kirsch’s discovery to the world. Perhaps the most interesting feature of the novel is Kirsch’s supercomputer, a sentient AI known as Winston, who guides the protagonists towards their goal with godlike success.
I’ll admit, I expected a little more from Origin than I got. I wasn’t actually all that bothered by the familiarity of the storyline, but for a book dealing with religion on Spanish soil, I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed when the Muslim and Jewish characters were killed off early on and nothing was made of this. Fair enough, Spain is a primarily Catholic country, but Angels and Demons made such an exciting use of the spectre of the Illuminati that I went into Origin expecting some dark vestige of Spain’s bloody history to raise its head. Instead we got the Palmarian Church – an innovative introduction to most of us, but given its role in the story, hardly the most threatening or thought-provoking of obstacles. All the same, I enjoyed Brown’s modern, pop-culture-imbued writing style, as it is so far-removed from my usual material, which I am increasingly coming to see as verbose and out of touch (though the travel writings and adventure novels of the late 1800s and early 1900s will always hold a position of glory in my heart for the lexical skill of their writers).
I haven’t mentioned the role played by the Royal Family of Spain, largely because it is so insignificant to the main plot that it might as well have been a soap opera flickering away on a TV in the background. The ghost of Franco was conjured up – but for just a moment. Barcelona loomed into view – but nothing was made of the Catalans. The Spanish Inquisition was mentioned several times, and a terrorist attack on Spanish soil was explicitly detailed – but there was only ever one religion truly under fire all along. Brown has always been good at misdirection in his plots, and he was subverting expectations in Origin like Rian Johnson did with the new Star Wars movies.
The big reveal? Not as mind-blowing as I anticipated, I guess – but then, Kirsch set the stakes very high. When the truth came out at the end, I was surprised it unsettled the Parliament of the World’s Religions so much that they considered prematurely sabotaging his discovery before it could go public. I’m not all that firm a believer myself, but I didn’t find myself questioning my faith once: Kirsch’s expositions on the seventh kingdom and the origins of mankind were insightful, but not exactly earth-shattering. By this point in our history, a future where we share the world with, or perhaps even cede it to the silent sentience of artificial intelligence is more or less inevitable. What started out as a plot device for a 1970s sci-fi nightmare is now almost a matter of fact. My question is, why should that kind of knowledge shake the foundations of the faithful?
My journey with Catholicism is still in its infancy. That comes from growing up in a country which threw off the “shackles of the papacy” a long, long time ago. Though I live and work in a Catholic enclave, it is precisely that, an enclave. It’s easy to forget that, beyond the bubble, most of my countrymen don’t go to Mass on a Sunday, meatless Fridays aren’t the norm, and many of the rules and expectations that seem so normal seem out of date if not alien. Everybody has their own take on their own religion. For me, it’s a family affair. It’s my way of reaching out to my grandfather, a man I never knew, and to my cousins, uncles and aunts in Spain. It’s a way of sharing in that rich and beautiful legacy of ages. Futurists and scientists like Brown’s Edmond Kirsch take great delight in tearing down the temples of the ancients, but what are they doing if not building glass temples of their own in their stead, just as humans have delighted in doing for all time? Religion isn’t about rules and false truths. It’s about love.
My experiences as a student at a Kent grammar school, where daggers-drawn atheism was almost a state religion, actually gave me more of an appetite for a faith of my own. Ironically, my highly opinionated contemporaries pushed me towards God more readily than any beaming, hot-chocolate touting, guitar-strumming Christian Union friends ever did. I suppose what I objected to more than blind faith and the endless four-chord songs about some heavily distorted Western Jesus was the hostile rejection of hope, which has ever been my most treasured of core values (there’s a modern buzzword if ever there were one). And yes, in case it isn’t clear already, modern Christianity and I aren’t exactly a match made in heaven. Somebody once put it to me that Christian music adapted to suit a modern audience. Call me old-fashioned, but I’d take a hymnbook over guitar worship any day. I appreciate the staggering irony in that statement as a devotee of Gospel music, and I’m afraid I’ll have to hold up my hand as an all-too-human hypocrite on that count. For me, Gospel music has never been about a white Jesus who loves everybody, rather about bridging the gap between worlds and reveling in the rage, the sadness and the hope together with the joy of faith. Because that’s what faith is: perseverance in the face of insurmountable adversity. Kirsch, like many characters from my own past, went head to head with the world’s believers with a smug smile, believing he could sweep away the dark religions so that sweet science could reign. In doing so, he betrays his humanity: there are many for whom the most bitter of blows fall like rain upon their faith. Faith is not founded on facts. It comes from a deeper well.
I am one of those for whom the great questions – where do we come from? Where are we going? – have never held all that much interest. For most of our history, mankind has sought to make itself master of all things, seeking the logic and the reason behind everything in an attempt to bend it to his will, to subjugate it, for knowledge is power. And while I love to learn new things, I am no Kirsch. For me, the real beauty of faith is in the great mystery. There are some things that will forever be beyond my understanding. And I’m ok with that. It’s not so much “Jesus, take the wheel”. It’s more of a “I’m mysterious, folks. Deal with it.” Sometimes – as Rowan Atkinson’s character says in the 2005 film Keeping Mum – all we need is a little grace.
The chase scene in the Sagrada Familia was pretty spectacular. Brown knows how to pick a good setting, that’s for sure. There’s always something terrifying about the idea of fleeing from a searchlight – some “flight” instinct, buried deep, from a time before flashlights when we ran, ducked and weaved to get out of eyesight of predators who were after our blood, perhaps. Those were always the levels in video-games that scared me the most (Zelda: Wind Waker, Metroid Fusion, Harry Potter etc). I digress. Brown’s assassin had a gun and had just killed a man with his bare hands, but that torch in his hands was his most frightening weapon by far. To survive, Langdon and Vidal had to keep in the shadows. Add that to their escape taking place within a cathedral as bizarre and unorthodox as the Sagrada Familia and it makes for a truly terrifying pursuit.
Winston is far and away the standout success in Origin. Think HAL voiced by Stephen Fry. Educated, intelligent and eerily human, Winston is immediately likable from his first appearance. In fact, I found him such an interesting character that I felt a real sense of loss when Langdon and Vidal lost contact with him at a certain point in the narrative. I had my suspicions about the whole monte@iglesia affair, but the twist that he was the mastermind behind it all hit me like a sucker punch. I didn’t stop liking him for it. In fact, I found him an even more interesting character by far. And that recurring trait of his awkward laugh was a stroke of genius: endearing in its first appearance, terrifying in its last. Origin could be criticised for being a recycling of Brown’s old plots, but his Oxford-educated HAL makes it worth every page.
“The devout can always benefit from listening to non-believers. It is in hearing the voice of the Devil that we can better appreciate the voice of God.”
Zeus, more than any other god, resisted his own extinction, mounting a violent battle against the dying of his own light, precisely as had the earlier gods Zeus had replaced.
“I’ve been taking confessions for fifty years. I know a lie when I hear one.”