Tuesday, January 02, 2007


There's a very interesting point that Spinsterella raised in the Comments box a few days ago. "Fact:" declares Mr Brown. "The Priory of Sion - a European secret society founded in 1099 - is a real organization."

Except, of course, that it isn't. The Priory of Sion was founded in 1956 by an intriguing, albeit slightly tragic character called Pierre Plantard who, among other things, claimed to be the rightful heir to the French throne. Plantard eventually admitted the hoax, but not before the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail had used his creation as the basis for their pseudohistorical blockbuster; decades later, of course, they would meet Dan Brown in court, earnestly debating the intellectual ownership of something that had, by that time, become entirely discredited. The whole tussle surely recalled Borges' analysis of the Falklands War: "a fight between two bald men over a comb."

So has Brown shown himself to be an abject klutz even before the story starts? Maybe, maybe not. The Da Vinci Code is, after all, a work of fiction. The 'Fact' heading comes in after the title page (page 13 in my paperback edition) and, as such, the reader has entered into an unspoken covenant. The reality: the fulsome plugs from hacks and fellow scribes; the ISBN and other banausic details of the publishing process; the dutiful acknowledgments; all these appear before. Once you're past the start line, you are no longer in the world of fact. Brown can get away with anything. He doesn't need to be accurate - only plausible.

And if the Priory of Sion is, despite Brown's apparently earnest seal of approval, a load of old bollocks, what about the other stuff? Well, Opus Dei is real enough, although whether it's as sinister as Brown makes out is a matter for you and your deity of choice. And the final paragraph: "All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate." Well, they may well be. But, again, this is fiction. Brown isn't bound by the normal rules of historians or scientists. As the heckler said to Brian: "He's making it up as he goes along!"

Two predecessors come to mind. One is the Orson Welles movie F For Fake, in which the Big Guy tells the audience that everything he will say in the next hour will be entirely true; the joke is that we don't register when the hour is up. The other is Pale Fire, in which Nabokov creates so many layers of authorship and 'reality' that we end up losing track of what's real, what's meant to be 'real' in this fictional universe, and what's the raving of a lunatic (who is, in any case, fictional, so it may not matter anyway).

So, already a defence is beginning to form that might wrongfoot Brown's detractors. He's not wrong; he's not lying; he's not misguided; he's not trying to pull a fast one. Instead, he's deploying that all-purpose get-out clause for countless aesthetic sins: he's just being a wee bit postmodernist. Any nitpicking about the layout of the Louvre or the history of the Knights Templar, and the author is entitled to smile gnomically and refer the honourable member to the reply that Derrida made earlier.

This isn't just an obscure byway of rarefied philosophy, either. Donald Rumsfeld, for example, has shown himself to be adept as juggling notions of reality with Nabokovian elegance. As he declared a few years back:

"Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know."

What few people know, or indeed know that they know, or don't know, is that the words of Rumsfeld are a direct quotation from an inscription to be found on the table in Leonardo's Last Supper. Look just below St Thomas's right hand. It's there. Or it was, until those pesky agents of Opus Dei deleted it...


Blogger Spinsterella said...

A lot of people I've met believe that all of the background detail is completely true.

It seems as if EVERYONE on the planet has read DVC. Many of them who perhaps otherwise haven't touched a book since leaving school. So they can perhaps be forgiven their credulity.

10:46 am  
Blogger Joel said...

The Coen brothers used a similar technique for Fargo, opening with "This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred."
I'm sure this is the only reason they chose not to direct the DVC adaptation...
Fantasy has always been a bit of a genre ghetto if you compare it to the traditional thriller or mystery, and I think he's protecting his absurd plot by saying 'look, it's not fantasy, it may be fiction but it's based on real actual things. That exist.' Obviously a trick he got from his brother Derren.

11:42 am  
Blogger Billy said...

I didn't know that comb thing was a Borges quote.

2:44 pm  
Blogger Jun Okumura said...

Didn't 19th Century fiction (and 20th Century pulp fiction, among others) routinely use that true-story ploy? Perhaps it's fallen into disuse, and "[m]any of them who perhaps otherwise haven't touched a book since leaving school" don't recognize it for what it is.

At least that's what I think, based on my not-reading of da Da Vinci Code.

11:09 pm  
Blogger Tim Footman said...

Spin: Yes, I suppose reading one book is better than reading none. But isn't that a bit like having sex with just one person in your life? It might be great, but you get the idea that that's what it's like, and there are no comparisons to be made.

Joel: There was a story about a Japanese Coen fan who took that at face value, visited Fargo in mid-winter, and froze to death in a field. But I was never entirely sure whether that story was true...

"...his brother Derren." As I believe the young folk say, LOL.

Billy: I'm not sure it's original. But Borges did write it at some point.

Jun: Yes, many 19th/20th century writers did try to stress the 'reality' of their fictions, but few were so heavy-handed as to slam the word "FACT" on top.

Also, writers today are more likely to go in the opposite direction, by creating metafiction (drawing attention to the fact that it's not real). That's it: Brown's not a bad writer, he's just unfashionable...

1:34 am  

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