Review: Inferno - Dan Brown's Dante-inspired novel is clunky but clever and will undoubtedly heat up pundits
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Tuesday 14 May 2013
On page 334 of Inferno, Dan Brown's tweedy Harvard iconographer Robert Langdon reveals to Sienna Brooks - a British-born misfit genius who gallops around three favourite tourist destinations with him in this latest adventure - that "We're in the wrong country". Cue a flight out of Venice, where a plot rammed to bursting-point with guide-book factoids and the vintage formulae of apocalyptic science-fiction has shifted from its opening location in Florence.
Readers will know soon enough that the third, and decisive, city of Inferno is Istanbul. Once there, we learn under the gilded dome of the cathedral-mosque-museum of Hagia Sophia that “the traditions of East and West are not as divergent as you might think”.
Listen out for the agonised wailing of lost souls who staked their tie-in stunts on a bankable Florentine showdown. The torments of Dante’s damned - in the event, more a trigger to the action of Inferno than a regular sound-track to its twists - will have nothing on their bitter grief. Indeed, the esoteric lore of the Florentine Renaissance, which unlike the arcane rigmarole of The Da Vinci Code does have some solid basis in history, plays a much smaller role here than all the predictions supposed.
Even Dante’s vision of hell drives the intrigue not so much in its original form (although the publishers of Allen Mandelbaum’s workmanlike 1980s translation will be glad of Langdon’s praise) as in the guise of Botticelli’s series of illustrative drawings, here customised to carry vital clues.
When we do finally come to the verses that hold out the key to the mystery to those “possessed of sturdy intellect”, they deviate from actual Dante into our devilishly clever villain’s pastiche of his poetry. For Brown has a distinctly hi-tech approach to salvation, and damnation, to purvey.
The Turkish finale will not shock everyone. In December 2009, Brown paid a visit to Istanbul. He took a tour around those sites in Sultanahmet at which Inferno careers towards its trademark chase-and-reveal climax. One of the city’s heritage chiefs later speculated that Brown “could write a novel about Istanbul”. Well spotted, Mr Faruk Pekin. But will the already-busy hoteliers of Sultanahmet appreciate the looming infestation of Brown fans?
As it happens, looming infestations lie at the heart of Inferno. Be warned: if what follows sounds like a spoiler, then at the close Brown will play a hand packed with jokers.
For much of the novel, it appears that he has taken off the shelf one of the dustiest tropes in the Science Fiction canon. Brilliant mad scientist concocts a deadly artificial plague and prepares to unleash it on the world in a second “Black Death”. This “cull” will prune back over-fertile humankind and so, perversely, save a planet-wrecking species “on the verge of collapse” thanks to over-population. Or so we assume...
The synthetic pathogen, and its genocidal release, has propelled more SF potboilers than Robert Langdon has worn Harris Tweed jackets.
Can Brown re-engineer these over-familiar devices of outbreak, pestilence and contagion into a viable organism? However clunkily, he can.
Inferno grafts the artificial-plague motif onto the biology and ideology of population control and the heretical science of the “Transhumanist” movement. This updated variant of eugenics believes that humanity must take control of its own evolution. Many SF authors, along with outlier scientists such as Ray Kurzweil, have long pondered such a utopian – or dystopian - future. But thanks to Inferno, the neo-Malthusians, the “Population Apocalypse Equation”, and even a long-forgotten crackpot who changed his name to “FM-2030”, will soon enjoy their 15 minutes or more of fame.
The first half of Inferno does stage the much-anticipated race through the landmarks of Renaissance Florence - Palazzo Vecchio, Pitti Palace, Boboli Gardens, Duomo. Along the way, Brown unfolds the back-story and malign intent of his very own Dr Evil: Bertrand Zobrist, a pioneering but disturbed geneticist. Zobrist has already leapt to his death from the tower of the Badia. Thus the plot-motor becomes the usual Brownian single-day hunt for the wheres, whys and hows of his toxic legacy.
Or so we, for much of the book, are led to think. As for Langdon’s initial amnesia, the shoot-out in a Florentine hospital, the neuroses of his super-bright young companion Sienna, the silver-haired top scientist held captive by black-clad commandos, the Bond-style “Consortium” and its yacht-based “devil’s enabler” who makes the most outlandish desires of the super-rich come true: Brown sets them all up and then, with a wicked cunning that even those of us who labour through his charmless, tuneless prose could hardly gainsay, pulls several rugs from underneath his reader.
Brown’s own perspective on the human cullers and genetic “enhancers” remains ambiguous. After all, they share his kneejerk hostility to the Catholic hierarchy – which surfaces again here - and its commands to breed and to suffer.
Crazy or sane, the ideas of the neo-eugenicists take centre-stage in Inferno. Pity the earnest Danteans, with their now-redundant cribs, and the Florentine tour-guides who will have much of their thunder stolen by Istanbul. And brace yourself for a world-wide media outbreak of sizzling punditry about over-population, global resources and the promise or threat of genetic engineering. However barmy his premises, however leaden his prose, Brown retains all the advantages of surprise.
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