Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Javier Sierra: The Secret Supper

Javier Sierra's novel The Secret Supper is due to be published in the UK (by Simon and Schuster) on 6 March this year, and in the US (by Atria, a sub-division of S&S) on 21 March. In the UK, S&S are banging the drum already, chiefly by distributing advance reading copies, one of which I have read.

This novel has an interesting history. Javier Sierra is Spanish, and his book was first published in Spain in October 2004. (Remember that date.) It was a huge hit in his native land, selling over 200,000 copies in hardcover. Since then rights have been sold in 30 other countries.

So what's it about?

Well, all the principal events occur in Milan, in 1497, and the story is narrated, mostly, by an old man called Father Agostino Leyre. Evidently a real person, as are many other characters in the book, Leyre spent his declining years as a cave-dwelling hermit in Egypt. But in 1497 he was an important official in the Church of Rome.

Leyre is sent to Milan because of rumours surrounding the painting of the Last Supper which Leonardo da Vinci is currently completing. The word is that Leonardo is using the painting to include coded messages which spread ideas which are seriously in conflict with those of the Church. Leyre's job is to find out if these rumours are true, and, if they are, to decode the painting.

At which point you may groan and say to yourself, Oh yes, another rip-off of The Da Vinci Code.

But hold... The author tells us (and I have no reason to doubt it), that he spent three years in researching and writing his book. If we assume that he completed the work one year before publication in Spain, that means that his groundwork was done between 2000 and 2003. And, since the Dan Brown thingy wasn't published until mid 2003, I think we can rule out any question of influence.

There is a question, however, as to how good or bad an effect the whole Da Vinci phenomenon will have on the sales of this book. No one can doubt that it will have some effect: and the publishers insist on mentioning it in every piece of supporting material, so they obviously think it's a Good Thing. We shall see.

And the next question is, is the book any good?

Well, I certainly found it interesting. But then I'm a European, with an interest in the Renaissance and the Reformation. And the nature of the book is such, I suspect, that it is going to have far greater appeal in countries which have largely Roman Catholic populations than in places where Protestantism is the norm. Or, to put it another way, countries where people take religion rather more seriously than is the case in the UK.

There are some murders in the book, but the revelation of who committed them is dealt with as if it was of very little interest. So this certainly isn't a whodunit, or even much of a thriller. The whole attention of the characters, and of the author, is focused on interpreting Leonardo's famous painting, and what it is intended to mean. And I must confess that I learnt a great deal more about that painting, from reading this book, than I had ever known before.

So, a tolerably interesting read. But is it going to appeal to those who lapped up Dan Brown? I am inclined to doubt it. But the endless publicity for Dan Brown's extraordinarily long-lasting bestseller will probably generate enough heat to make this one a success too.

I do hope that, before this book is printed in the final hardcover edition, someone corrects not only the typos but also the bizarre layout of the conclusion. The footnote on page 311 is in absolutely the wrong place, in my opinion; in the ARC its placement totally kills the impact of the last word on that page. The information conveyed in that footnote properly belongs in the Author's Notes, on page 318.

The last two paragraphs of the Post-Scriptum (on pages 316/317 of the ARC), also belong in the Author's Notes.

As part of the publicity drive, there is an English-language official web site for the author, and a web site specifically for the book.


lady t said...

I saw the ARC of Secret Supper but decided not to read it(never got into
the whole DaVinci Code craze-didn't get past page one of the book)but I am curious;did your ARC come in a slipcase?

The US version does(which caught my eye)which tells me that S&S clearly intends to put alot of advertising cash behind this book,trying to create the next Dan Brown. It's very much like Hollywood,making two or three movies with the same type of plotline at the same time.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the book! Well worth reading! If you are looking for a fast paced thriller, this is not it. The mystery is secondary to Sierra's insights into the painting. I agreed with him on some and disagreed on others.
I am thankful that it was not another DaVinci Code. DaVinci code was entertaining, but not to the extent of its publicity.

Anonymous said...

I thought the book was difficult to follow, which caused me to think that the rave reviews were from critics who read the original text and not the novel that was translated. I was unimpressed and quite honestly don't understand what the big deal about this book is. It's certainly not a whodunit. It's more like a howdoIgetthroughit.
Roman Catholic from South Bend, Indiana

Anonymous said...

I just finished the book & agree wth the last poster. It was difficult to follow & I also felt that the translator was not really able to convey in English what the original language conveyed. It came out too stilted and didn't really flow. Perhaps if the translator's first language had been English it would have been better.

Anonymous said...

To Roman Catholic From Indiana: it's a European type of book, so no wonder you found hard to get through it:)) It's meant for reflection, contemplation, and getting information - as opposed to easy entertainment in the thriller whodunit format. Dan Brown despises research - and indeed, why should his mainly American readers care if he even does not get the plan of Paris even remotely right or if he proclaims that his wife is an art scholar and yet calls Leonardo "Da Vinci" - "From Vinci!" - something that no serious scholar would ever do? In contrast, Sierra has got his facts correct, gives a clear idea where facts end and his hypotheses begin (not all manuscripts have survived, after all). Personally, I find his hypotheses very plausible and even if we exclude them, the new facts and the new way they taught me to look at Leonardo's "Last Supper" are more that sufficient a reason for really enjoying the book. I am now determined to go see the original of the painting! FYI, I am not Catholic nor even belong to any organised religion and, though I read it in English and found it easy to follow, English is not my first language.
But the publishers have definitely made use of the popularity of Brown's book to promote this one: that's just business. I think the only good thing that came of that shamelessly phony and unresearched book was that it created a wave that also carries other, more deserving works dealing with the fascinating period of the Renaissance.

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