Iiiiiiiiiiiiiiit’s Audiobook of the month time! Public service announcement! There are many spoilers in this review but there really isn’t a way of talking about the book without giving something away.
This month I’ve followed on from last time’s softly softly approach to intellectual challenges and downloaded Dan Brown’s new bestseller Inferno. Dan Brown is a marmite author for many and it’s not hard to see why. Brown has the irritating habit of starting his Robert Langdon adventures with a ‘fact’ checklist that reads like a Domestos advert. An example being, ‘FACT: there IS a high powered multinational organisation that will acquire anything an individual needs for the right price’. Well yes maybe there is Dan, but it’s called Tesco’s and is not the nucleus of a conspiracy, except for perhaps their shaky land grabs, but that’s really best left to Dispatches to deal with. Brown seems to have built a career by taking historical or scientific nuggets of information completely out of context and building a book around them. I have a scientist friend who has previously worked at CERN who, when she went to see Angles and Demon didn’t quite know whether to scream in rage, laugh hysterically or punch herself in the face when the God Particle was shown merrily buzzing away in a glass tube. I’m no Biblical scholar or art historian but I’ve read enough blustering reviews to know that the Da Vinci Code also has some pretty severe plot holes running through it like a stick of rock. But we all know what Brown does do, and that’s make history sexy, which to a point, I’m all for. So it was with mixed emotions that I sallied forth and plugged in to Inferno.
Inferno kicks off with dishy Harvard Professor Robert Langdon awaking with amnesia in a Florentine hospital with a bio-hazard tube in the pocket of his Harris Tweed and a deadly assassin on his tail. He is aided in escaping his murderous foe by the enigmatic Sienna, a woman with more secrets than the Mona Lisa. Cue lots of hiding in museums, breaking into churches and dodging bullets in a bid to unravel a tangled web of intrigue and likely world catastrophe.
Having read the Da Vinci code and seen the film versions of both it and Angels and Demons I’ve come to the lofty opinion that Brown should stop writing mysteries and become a travel writer. He could be the new Bill Bryson, and I have a lot of time for Bill Bryson. It’s clear to see that Brown has a genuine love of European history and likes nothing more than flexing his trivia muscle, so why on Earth he feels the need to concoct some daft and entirely predictable story within which to do so is beyond me. I really like how he describes first Florence and then Venice and Istanbul and it’s clear that as ‘Robert Langdon looked up at the domed ceiling’ really Dan Brown did so. Parts of Inferno read as if direct extracts from the author’s notebook. For much of the book all I could see was Brown walking around some of Europe’s greatest landmarks on what I can only assume was a niffty publisher funded research trip, and fair play to him. I’ve never been to Florence but I can honestly say I want to go after listening to the descriptions of the Pitti Palace and Ponte Vecchio. I have been to Venice and it was lovely to revisit it through this work. I also really enjoyed the brief outline of the life of Dante as I knew little of it and what I did know had been gleaned from reading about the Pre-Raphaelites when I became a bit mad on Elizabeth Siddal one winter many years ago. So despite playing alot of Assasin’s Creed the Renaissance is not my greatest area of knowledge. I know the main players, your Borgias, Machiavellis and Da Vincis but after that I get my Medicis mixed with my Orsinis, my Veronas with my Genoas and don’t even get me started on the Popes. So it was nice to be able to sit back and be taken by the hand through the streets of Renaissance Italy by a keen guide, if one you don’t entirely trust.
We then come to the main nub of the book. As the Da Vinci code envisioned the end of humanity through the chaos caused by revealing the secret of Jesus’ bloodline and Angels and Demons sought to kill us all off with the a stolen God Particle so Inferno concerns itself with the annihilation of the planet through overpopulation and or a deadly plague as Brown broaches the persistently sticky wicket of the massive over population of planet Earth. We all know that as a species we are several billion people over capacity and increasing every day, as a sidenote this is something I wish someone would tell every single living person I’ve come into contact with in the last five years, all of whom find it entirely socially acceptable to stomp great big nosey questioning bootprints over one of the most emotionally and physically personal decisions of my life, that of when I too will put my reproductive organs to use – oh the quiet rage. Ahem, anyway. Earth is fast running out of resources to support our ever fertile species and no-one has come up with a reasonable solution to the issue apart from handing out condoms to everyone or moving to the moon. No one that is except for Brown’s villain of the piece Zobrist who subscribes to the belief that a darn good epidemic or natural disaster is just the ticket for sorting out the mess we find ourselves in. To use a Brownian technique: FACT – after the Black Death we had the Renaissance and the notion that humanity needs disease and famine to flourish is exactly the argument Brown attempts to debate within Inferno. Interesting. This perilously uncomfortable topic is I think pretty gutsy ground for Brown, a classic case of heart over head. We need to shave off about half the population of the Earth in order to continue as a species and yet the act of doing so goes against all of the best parts of our species, compassion, empathy and kindness. I know what Spock would do, however we are a planet of Kirks.
Brown is however I fear not the man to handle this hot potato of a topic no matter how many Malthusian or Eugenics references he crow-bars into it. He lays out the issues, manipulates the arguments for his own ends and then leaves the reader with no solution or answers. He leaves it to the World Health Organisation to iron out the problem, but not before the entire world has been infected with a sterilisation virus. Hmmmmm.
As may be clear from the last 1000 words I feel rather torn by this month’s little diversion. It’s a good, romantic guidebook for a total novice to Renaissance Italy like my good self but its attempts at a moral debate leave me cold and rather scornful. Of course I could always fall back on the get-out-of-jail-free-card of publishing that it’s a great ‘holiday read’ but that feels like a bit of a cop-out, but maybe that’s apt in this case because that’s pretty much what Brown leaves his reader with.