It seems like I just can’t stay away from those everything-you-know-is-wrong, Da Vinci Code-style, religious-conspiracy historical thrillers these days. It’s probably a character flaw or something on my part, but if that’s the worst flaw I have I’m not going to sweat it. Anyway, I’ve read several of these recently, the most recent being The Last Cato, by Matilde Asensi. At least it has the virtue of not being a Da Vinci clone - Ms. Asensi’s book was published in Spanish in 2001, while The Da Vinci Code didn’t hit the stores until 2003.
The Last Cato begins with Roman Catholic sister and world-renowned paleographer (paleography is the study of ancient handwriting) Dr. Ottavia Salina being pulled from her normal duties at the Vatican to help figure out who is stealing pieces of the True Cross from churches around the world. The only clue, at least initially, is the body of an Ethiopian killed in the crash of a small plane. His body is covered with mysterious scars in the form of crosses and letters. After figuring out, with the help of Captain Kaspar Glauser-Roist of the Swiss Guard, what the scars mean, or at least the source of their designs, Ottavia is abruptly dismissed from the investigation and told to go back to her usual work. She objects to this vociferously and reveals that she has accessed information about the investigation that she was not authorized to have. This earns her dismissal from her Vatican position and exile by her order to an obscure post in Ireland.
No sooner, however, than her plane lands in Dublin Ottavia is bundled right back onto a plane back to Rome. She never even gets to leave the airport in Ireland. Only when she arrives back at the Vatican dose she discover that all is forgiven and that her job - and her place on the investigation - have been restored to her. She also learns that a third investigator has been added to the team, a part-Egyptian /part-Italian Coptic Catholic non-believing archaeologist, Professor Farag Boswell. In the week between Ottavia’s dismissal and her reinstatement, Kaspar and Farag have been to the Sinai and returned with a purloined manuscript that gives them more clues about the group that has been taking the pieces of the cross. Before long, they figure out that Dante’s Purgatory provides the guidebook they need to find the paradise on earth of this ancient order. And that is where the quest really begins.
There is probably a little too much Dante here for some readers. Still, I enjoyed how Ms. Asensi integrated information from his writings into the process of the protagonists’ analysis and following of the clues provided there. I’m definitely interested now in reading the middle installment of The Divine Comedy (I’ve only read the Inferno before). My own biggest problem with the story is a side plot concerning Ottavia’s Sicilian family and its “coincidental” role in altering the nun’s outlook on a number of issues. That seemed a bit too coincidental to me. It was just too obvious a plot device, and I saw it coming long before its implications came home to roost, so to speak. That isn’t enough of a quibble, though, to have substantially harmed my enjoyment of the story. In fact, the last half of the book was really difficult for me to put down.
Another small problem I had with the book was the translation, and it is a problem that many translations seem to have. At times, the dialogue didn’t quite ring true. This wasn’t anything glaring, but more little things that just didn’t scan quite correctly as the characters spoke to one another. On the other hand, I really enjoyed the way the characters developed, how their relationships came together, and how each was changed (or not) by the experiences they had together.
I hadn’t heard of The Last Cato or its author before I happened on it in a bookstore earlier in the week. I bought it primarily because the back-cover blurb made the book sound like a good read. Quibbles aside, that is exactly what it was. I wouldn’t call it great literature by any means, but it was fun even as it had some substance to it and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys this sort of novel.