In the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “my first instinct upon hearing that a book has been banned is to seek it out and read it.” I agree. Indeed, my reaction to any literary controversy is to write about it in The Student.
Armed with that philosophy, I read Dan Brown’s thriller The Da Vinci Code over the holidays. This international bestseller is as controversial as it is popular. In 2004, the Lebanese government banned the book for religious blasphemy. Innumerable historians have debunked its plot inaccuracies. Several authors have denounced it as sub-par literature, with Stephen Fry charmingly describing it as “arse-gravy of the worst kind”.
I don’t go quite as far as “arse-gravy”. In fact, I thought it was a fantastic thriller. Nevertheless, accusations of inaccuracies are very well-founded.
The story follows a young Harvard academic called Robert Langdon. The police summon him to the Louvre, where a famous curator has been murdered. Langdon eventually finds himself falsely accused of the crime and goes on the run.
The provocative elements lie in the motive for the murder. Langdon discovers that the victim was a member of the Priory of Sion: an organisation that (as the story goes) protects a Secret Historical Truth. This secret relates to the Holy Grail and challenges the most fundamental tenets of Christianity. It was allegedly covered up when Christianity was founded. The Priory’s purpose is to “protect” the secret and prevent the Catholic authorities from destroying the evidence. Leonardo Da Vinci was said to have hidden cryptic clues about it in his paintings, hence the book’s title!
I won’t spoil what this historical ‘secret’ is. Although it’s easily findable online, I recommend reading the book unspoiled. After reading, however, you will understand why religious groups protested. Not only does Brown allege that many Christian principles are fundamentally wrong, but he also accuses its ancient founders of a corrupt, violent, patriarchal and degrading cover-up.
Ultimately, there is no evidence whatsoever that this ‘cover-up’ happened. The novel’s conspiracy theory is largely regarded as a complete lie, and the “evidence” presented by Brown has been condemned as nonsense. For example, Brown prefaces his novel with this statement, entitled “Fact”:
“The Priory of Sion – a French secret society founded in 1099 – is a real organisation.”
This is anything but ‘Fact’! The Priory of Sion is a conspiracy story created in 1956, and its mythical status as an ancient secret society has been debunked by countless historians. Even Arnaud de Sède, the son of the theory’s creator, revealed on Channel 4 that his father had made it up and that “frankly, it was piffle”.
So no, Leonardo Da Vinci was not a member of the ‘Priory of Sion’, and his paintings are not an amalgamation of cryptic clues about the Holy Grail. The Priory of Sion does not exist, and the book’s central ‘secret’ is considered a pack of lies.
However, I would still happily urge you to read The Da Vinci Code for two reasons. Firstly, in an age of mounting disinformation, the solution is not to ban literature like this but to expose it! Freedom of expression should allow Dan Brown to write a novel like The Da Vinci Code. That, in return, permits historians to openly condemn it as a conspiracy novel with no factual basis (or to call it “arse-gravy of the worst kind” if you’re Stephen Fry!). Dan Brown’s freedom to write guarantees Fry’s freedom to call it “arse-gravy”. And most importantly, reading it helps us understand the conversation. Let’s allow The Da Vinci Code, in all its wrongness, to act as a glaring reminder of how ridiculous conspiracy theories can get. That message alone can broaden our minds.
Secondly, despite its abysmal inaccuracies and ludicrous claims to ‘Fact’ where there are none, it is a fun book to read. It is a rollicking adventure; it’s exhilarating, filled with humorous dialogue, and brimming with mystery. I must admit that I was hooked from Page One. Say what you will about ‘literary merit’ (fair enough, it’s hardly Shakespeare); Brown kept me rooted to the story and that, in my view, is a sign of talented writing.
Even Hitchcockian undertones are detectable. We have an innocent man wrongly accused of a crime, embroiled in extraordinary circumstances, going on the run alongside a feisty female lead (police cryptographer Sophie Neveu) with whom he slowly falls in love and who eventually uncovers a network of corruption. It is the plot of most Hitchcock films all rolled into one. Additionally, without any spoilers, a key message of the novel is the importance of respecting women: women in history, women now, and female sexuality generally. Though the novel’s conspiracy is pure fiction (I cannot stress that enough), the broader symbolism of that fiction is charmingly feminist. Brown has good intentions despite mostly talking tripe!
Therefore, if you ever spot The Da Vinci Code in a bookshop and fancy a pure masterpiece of escapism, I urge you to try it. Nobody could call it anything less than thought-provoking.