It's a mystery
The world's best-selling work of adult fiction has just been reissued in a $48 illustrated version. MICHAEL VALPY investigates what is fuelling the seemingly unstoppable phenomenon of The Da Vinci Code
By MICHAEL VALPY
Saturday, November 20, 2004 - Page R1
Sixteen million hardcover copies sold and not a paperback copy on the horizon. Instead Random House has just cranked a new egg out of the golden goose of The Da Vinci Code -- a $48 illustrated edition of the world's best-selling work of adult fiction.
Put it under the Christmas tree if the whisper of sacrilege doesn't poke at your soul. And, lo, your gift recipient need never Internet-rummage for an image of Leonardo Da Vinci's The Last Supper to see if the person sitting beside Jesus is indeed not John, the Beloved Disciple, but a woman. Jesus's lover. His wife. The mother of his child. The rightful holder of the keys to the church. Mary Magdalene. It's right there, the detail of the Supper reproduced, on Page 253.
The lush, oversized book with 150 illustrations and a press run of 675,000 went on sale a few days ago, coincidentally timed -- or maybe not, if your mind works the same way as Dan Brown's novel -- to this past week's announcement that Tom Hanks has been picked to star in the DVC movie version, the rights to which Sony paid $6-million (U.S.) and which is expected to be a cinematic blockbuster comparable to Harry Potter.
Add a planned television spectacular. Add the 13 spinoff books written about DVC to date, and the crafty buildup to Brown's next novel, the publication date of which Random House keeps pushing back -- March, 2005, is the latest date -- while sprinkling fairy dust hints on the media of what it is going to be about.
For example, Stephen Rubin, president of Random's Doubleday imprint, publisher of DVC, "let slip" at a late October lunch with journalists that the title is The Solomon Key. Other dribbled snippets of information say it is set in Washington and is about Freemasons. Brown has let it be known that clues to the plot can be found on the DVC dustjacket.
(American journalist Dan Burnstein, author of Secrets of the Code: The Unauthorized Guide to the Mysteries Behind The Da Vinci Code, says that select letters on the dust jacket stand out in very slightly bolded type, spelling "Is there no help for the widow's son," a quote from the biblical Apocrypha's Book of Enoch that links Freemasonry to the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith.) Add that DVC has had an astonishing and not entirely welcome impact on tourism in Europe, with visitors flocking to sites in the novel -- like Rosslyn Chapel near Edinburgh, Milan's Convent of Santa Maria Delle Grazie, where The Last Supper is painted on the refectory wall, the Louvre and Saint-Sulpice in Paris, and the French village of Rennes-le-Chateau, whose mayor has ordered the body of a mysterious priest named Abbe Berenger Sauniere (the last name! the clue is the last name) dug up and encased in a concrete mausoleum to deter persistent treasure-hunters.
Consider, as well, that DVC plays an eerie duet with the maddest and darkest Princess Diana conspiracy theory ("Whoever controls Diana, controls the world") enjoying a rage of new life on the Internet -- that she was murdered in Paris's Pont de l'Alma tunnel, an ancient site of pagan sacrifices built by you-know-who, the Freemasons, because she was at risk of marrying a Muslim, Dodi Fayed, which -- as a direct descendent of Jesus -- she could never, never be allowed to do.
Then throw in the marvellous bit of scholarly trivia that the closest competitor to DVC as an instantly popular religious-themed work is an 1836 book called The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, purportedly the account of a nun who escaped from a Montreal convent where she had been a sex toy of priests. It had sold 250,000 copies by the start of the U.S. Civil War, and was still selling into the 20th century although its subject had been revealed as a severely disturbed young woman with fantasies and its author unmasked as a virulent anti-Catholic who was her Svengali.
And one other bit of trivia: that the only fictional competitor to DVC left standing in overall sales is Dr. Seuss, and it probably has been surpassed.
Paperback edition? Normally a paperback edition is published within a year of the hardcover. It's now been 20 months since The Da Vinci Code came out, instantly hardwired to North American bestseller lists. With tens of thousands of copies still being sold weekly, the word "paperback" hasn't been breathed.
Maryann Thomas, owner of the Ginger Press bookstore and publishing house in the Georgian Bay town of Owen Sound, Ont., said in her 25 years in the business she's never encountered anything like DVC.
Its length of time on Canadian bestseller lists -- The Globe's since April, 2003 -- is unprecedented, she said. "We don't stay that long with a title, we're too small a market [compared with the United States]."
Sales of the illustrated edition, which arrived at her main-street shop last week, are already brisk and, as with the original version, significantly more women than men are buyers. "Although I did sell one copy to a lawyer and he was happy with it," Thomas said.
She herself read the novel in "real time" -- 12 hours straight through -- and immediately searched out a copy of The Last Supper to see who was sitting beside Jesus. And? "I thought, well, that could be a woman."
The Da Vinci Code is a murder mystery that begins and ends in the Louvre and, in between, winds through 466 engrossing pages of art history, the formation of Christian doctrine, a labyrinthine Vatican conspiracy and 39-year-old former songwriter and private-school English teacher Dan Brown's unbridled creative imagination, all of which allegedly rest on the plinth of a 1982 book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, written by three British journalists, two of whom have just sued Doubleday for plagiarism, a claim that has not been proven in court.
The question: Why is DVC so incredibly popular?
The answers from interviewed theologians -- including the only living theologian mentioned in DVC -- range from the moral bankruptcy of public life in the developed world and its concomitant preoccupation with conspiracy theories as a search for meaning beneath sordid reality, to the appeal to women of a book that strips Christianity deliciously naked of patriarchal clothing and the gathering evidence that popular culture plays (at times) a big role in shaping theology.
Brown wins the theologians' applause for inspiring religious debate and signalling added proof that Western society is absorbed by a quest for the sacred. What worries them is that too many people think his novel is true.
"It's such a persistent phenomenon," said Dr. Rosann Catalano, Roman Catholic scholar at the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore, Md. "I'm trying to understand the reason why very intelligent people want to believe this."
She suggested the answer lies with the erosion of every public moral authority in the United States from church to state to the point where Americans now believe no one in public life. "What The Da Vinci Code does initially is suck you into that world. . . . My great fear is that the book will contribute to the de-institutionalization of the church."
She said it also paints a story of Christianity so radically different from the party line most mainline Christians are taught that it's intriguing.
Dr. Ian Markham, professor of theology and dean of Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Conn., who last week finished teaching a course on The Da Vinci Code, said he would feel far more comfortable with the novel if Brown had not declared on the opening page that certain elements of it are "fact" -- specifically the existence of a secret society known as the Priory of Sion that is at the centre of the plot.
But that aside, he labelled the novel "teasing and fun" and reflecting "a tradition of capturing theological themes through fiction" in the genre of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein and even J.K. Rowling.
In the United States, he said, East Coast liberals are reading The Da Vinci Code while conservative evangelicals are reading the eschatological Left Behind novels, and women are responding to DVC's pre-Christian feminist themes and loving the fact that Pope Gregory the Great wrongly labelled Mary Magdalene a prostitute.
Canon Martyn Percy, principal of Ripon College Cuddesdon in Oxford, is quoted in the novel, bringing him, he said, minor celebrity status in the United States and "hundreds and hundreds of e-mails from all over the world, . . . a few of them abusive."
He said tracts, myths, tales and folklore have always competed with "official" religion. "The only difference between now and 500 years ago is the sheer scale of popular culture and its globalization. But popular culture has always given religion a run for its money, and the synergy between the two probably benefits both parties.
"The book promotes debate," Percy said. "That's it. Its ideas will have no lasting impact on the church or theology."