The Last Cato : A Novel by Matilde Asensi , Rayo (April 4, 2006), 464 pages
Like the beginning of The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons, and The Secret Supper, this religious mystery also starts with a death. This time the dead person is an Ethiopian who was implicated in a serious crime against the Catholic Church. When this person’s body was discovered, it had seven Greek characters distributed on the body. There was a large chrismon , the first two Greek letters of Christ’s name XP, chi and rho on his body and next to the body there was a silver ornate box containing some strange pieces of wood.
Puzzled, the Vatican requests the services of Dr. Ottavia Salina, a nun and paleographer working in the archives, a captain of the Pope’s Swiss Guard, Kaspar Glauser-Roïst, and an Egyptian archaeologist, Farag Boswell to investigate the death. The Pope too was highly interested in this investigation since the wooden pieces were not ordinary pieces, but pieces from the original cross on which Christ died.
According to history, Saint Helen (248 – 329 CE) went looking for the Holy Sepulchre (burial chamber) and discovered the True Cross of Christ in 326 CE during a trip to Jerusalem. Two hundred years before this, Emperor Adriano had built a temple dedicated to Venus over the location, which was demolished by Helen. During the excavation, they found the original cross and over centuries fragments of it were distributed all over the world. Now in the past twenty four hours, pieces of this Ligna Crucis had disappeared from various churches around the world and the assignment given to Dr. Salina, Captain Glauser-Roïst and Professor Boswell was to find who was behind this.
The symbols on the dead man’s body lead them to The Monastery of Saint Catherine of Sinai, which has the most valuable ancient codices in the world, second to Vatican. The location of the monastery is considered to be the place where Yaweh in the form of the burning bush gave the Ten Commandments to Moses. From a document which they stole from the monastery they find that a secret brotherhood called Staurofilakes was formed in 341 CE to guard the Cross and the leader of the group was called Cato.
Decoding the codices they also learn that over the years the Staurofilakes had set initiation tests for anyone wishing to join them. The tests were to be conducted in seven cities, Rome, Ravenna, Jerusalem, Athens, Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch. The only problem was that they needed to find the details of the tests and they find it in hidden in Dante’s Divine Comedy and thankfully, not in any of Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings.
According to Captain Glauser-Roïst, Dante was a member of Fidei d’Amore, a secret society interested in the spiritual renewal of Christianity. He also knew the Staurofilakes and belonged to the order, but he later betrayed them by revealing their secrets in The Divine Comedy, like how Mozart revealed the Mason’s initiation rituals in The Magic Flute. Armed with this knowledge, the three of them set off to take the tests for which they have to find the location of the test, details of the test and how to get over it all by reading The Divine Comedy.
These tests turn out to be brutal, physically intensive and mentally challenging and the seven tests occupy the major portion of the book. For one of the tests in Constantinople, they visit The Mosque of the Conquerer, spot the chrismon in the drain of the water fountain, turn on all the fountains and drop down a tunnel into a pool deep below. They spot Emperor Constantine’s tomb there and while walking through the tunnels are swept by gales of wind, generated by something. They almost lose their way, and face death, but thanks to a line in Divine Comedy, they find the right path and move to the next test, till they find if the Staurofilakes exist and if they are behind the murder of the Ethiopian and the stealing of the cross.
Unlike The Da Vinci Code, this book does not have a cliff hanger at the end of every third page. It moves a bit slower, but not so slow as to bore you. The story told in the first person by Dr. Salina, takes time to establish the personality of each of the characters, mainly the Professor and the Captain. We get to know a great deal about her, her family and her faith. While the mysteries are being solved, the secret codes in Divine Comedy are broken and ancient cities around the world are visited, personal transformations too happen. The nun falls for the Professor and is caught between the faith and love and has to decide. Similarly, the Captain who starts out as a serious task master undergoes a major transformation at the end, which was pleasant. In usual page turners, you barely get to know the characters, but this book is quite different.
Even though the build up was great and the travel and history very informative, the ending was a bit of a let down for me. Normally in such thrillers you expect a Hollywood like climax where the villain is holding everyone hostage and one man has to save the world. The ending of this book is quite the opposite. Even though the book starts with a death, that person is just discarded after a few pages and the story moves completely into the puzzles in Divine Comedy.
The Divine Comedy is analyzed in great depth and each Canto is memorized by the characters before the start of each test. If you are not interested in poetry like me, then you will find those sections tedious to read. Still the author has made sure that only the relevant lines are quoted and not the entire book. This book which was originally written in Spanish, was published much before the more popular The Da Vinci Code and is worth a read.