Sunday 20 October 2019

Whatever its literary merits, Brown delivers a rattling tale

Fiction: Origin, Dan Brown, Bantam Press, hardback, 480 pages, €28

Toecurling: One passage in Dan Brown's Origin involves drunken Irish football fans in a bar in Bilbao
Toecurling: One passage in Dan Brown's Origin involves drunken Irish football fans in a bar in Bilbao
Dan Brown's Origin

Myles McWeeney

Let's get something straight from the start. Virtually every reviewer of every Dan Brown book, from The Da Vinci Code, published in 2003, to Origin, his latest and fifth adventure featuring Harvard professor of symbology and religious iconography Robert Langdon, makes it abundantly clear that the man can't write for toffee.

Should he care? In less than a decade and a half, Brown, whose first two books sold only a few thousand copies, has moved over 250 million books, has an estimated annual income well north of $10m a year and, at this very moment, copies of Origin are flying off ­booksellers shelves around the world like leaves stripped from trees during Ireland's recent brush with Ophelia.

Truth be told, Brown can often write spectacularly badly. There's one toe-curling passage on page 20 of Origin featuring a couple of drunken Irish football fans in a bar in Bilbao that's so awful it's almost funny, and his dialogue is often declamatory rather than natural.

But what keeps his fans buying his books in their millions - Origin has an initial print run of two million in the US alone and will be published in 42 languages - is that Brown can spin a great story and possesses the invaluable gift of being able to make complex ideas and cutting-edge physics and scientific theory intelligible to the ordinary reader.

Origin deals with some pretty heavy-duty ideas. At the heart of the story is Edmond Kirsch, a 40-year-old Steve Jobs-like tech guru. He's a billionaire computer scientist, Artificial Intelligence inventor and entrepreneur. He's also a former student of Langdon, and he invites his old professor to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, where, at a meticulously organised event packed by rich, famous and influential invitees, he will ­reveal to the world an astonishing ­scientific breakthrough that will challenge the fundamentals of human existence and rock the world's main religions to their very core.

Three days before the event, Kirsch has had a secret meeting with three important religious leaders - Jewish, Muslim and Christian - in Montserrat, the monastery near Barcelona, and it was a meeting that left them reeling.

Kirsch's special evening is running smoothly, his multimedia presentation fascinating his eager audience, but just before the big reveal, a shocking event occurs that reduces the event into utter chaos. To his complete surprise, Langdon finds his life is now threatened and he is forced into a desperate effort to escape, accompanied by the museum's lissome and impossibly bright director Ambra Vidal, who just happens to be the fiancée of Prince Julian, heir to the Spanish throne.

It is clear that there are forces abroad that do not wish Kirsch's discovery to be revealed and who will go to any lengths to suppress it. But who are they? All manner of red herrings are produced - extreme right-wing Catholics, a breakaway sect of the Church called the Palmarians, Brown's own invented Spanish royal family and even adherents of the long-­disgraced General Franco.

While things are extremely perilous, Ambra and Robert are not quite alone. Somehow, amid the chaos, Robert manages to grab Kirsch's special cell phone and finds that at the other end is Winston, the tech innovator's very special and omniscient assistant, who is not exactly what he seems.

Winston knows that the inventor has left a lot of clues as how to access his personal super-computer which has a copy of his presentation on it. He tells the frantic couple where to locate a cryptic clue contained in a priceless original copy of the 18th-century British mystical poet and painter William Blake's complete works.

Their search first takes them to Barcelona's extraordinary Gaudi-designed cathedral, La Sagrada Família, where they manage to throw off their deadly pursuers by using the quirky architecture of this still unfinished building.

As the forces of darkness close in, in typical Brown style, Langdon finds himself in a race against time to locate Kirsch's quantum computer and restart the interrupted presentation.

Whatever its literary merits, Origin is an imaginative and rattling good tale. It may be totally improbable but, by all accounts, the science is accurate and comprehensible and the gobbets of Wikipedia-like information on the historic buildings featured are fascinating.

Go with the flow and enjoy.

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