This is the first book post of 2007, and in a season when we clear out the old to make way for the new, I am going to write over the next few days about three books that I read in December and wanted to share with you before moving onto the new reads of 2007.
The first one is titled The Dumas Club, and is written by Spanish author Arturo Perez-Reverte. The story traces the events in the life of a jaded intellectual detective, an Italian called Dean Corso, who specialises in tracking down and authenticating ancient scrolls, incunabula and rare editions of books. After a rare book dealer is found dead after selling a manuscript for a chapter of Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers, and another book dealer acquires an even rarer medieval satanic text titled De Umbrarum Regni Novem Portis, which is fabled to hold the secret for summoning the devil, Corso is assigned to the task of verifying the authenticity of both manuscripts. This kicks off a race across Europe to archives and private collections, all the while being followed by a sinister man with a scar across his face and random encounters with beautiful women whom Corso eventually manages to sleep with, despite an occasional inability to get it up - the effect of too much gin, I'd guess.
Perez-Reverte then takes us through several hundred pages of medieval fact finding, wild goose chases, intellectual cartwheels, plot digressions, and several dead bodies littered aesthetically along the course. The story is convoluted, trying as it does to be intelligent and factor into it several narrative styles, and the plot itself relies almost embarrassingly on The Three Musketeers for dramatic impact. There is a Cardinal Richelieu, there is a scheming Milady, and incredibly enough, there is also a Satan (oops - I mean a Fallen Angel) that accompanies Corso through Spain, Portugal & Paris on his quest to determine the authenticity of both works.
While an intelligent premise, the novel fails in its execution, simply because the author writes far too self-consciously. Corso is never completely fleshed out as a character, and the repetitive references to his Bonapartist ancestry is tiresome. He seems to be Perez-Reverte's idea of what Umberto Eco's Casaubon from Foucault's Pendulum would end up like after two decades of intellectual investigation - chain smoking, emotionally dysfunctional, addicted to gin and beautiful, unattainable European goddesses. Perhaps the biggest let down is in the denouement, when what appears to be an increasingly complex web of loose ends are so neatly and simply tied up that you're almost left flabbergasted and disgusted at having been led on a wild goose chase.
I was somewhat saddened by the fact that Perez-Reverte is obviously an incredibly smart man, but writes far too much in the shadow of that master of semiotics, medievalism and fiction, Umberto Eco himself. His plotlines, narrative style and even the forced inclusion of The Eco himself at a gathering of intellectuals & Dumas admirers ("Look who's arrived. You know him, don't you? Professor of semiotics in Bologna...") only underscore that this is a writer who read Foucault's Pendulum and somehow so desperately wanted to create his own version that he ended up writing The Dumas Club. There is also an almost obsessive desire on the author's part to impress the reader with his knowledge of literature, both medieval & contemporary, as well as an urge to write a thrilling intelligent murder mystery. Unfortunately, the book is too self-conscious to make it truly worthwhile.
End verdict? Mildly entertaining, but unfortunately not enough to keep you engrossed to the end. Good reading for the Tube, but only if the Metro doesn't keep you entertained.
Coming soon - The Memory Artists by Jeffrey Moore & Broken April by Ismail Kadare...