The Last Cato

Reviewed: April 11, 2007
By: Matilde Asensi
Publisher: Rayo (HarperCollins)
456 pages, $32.95

There are so many DaVinci Code clones out there since the success of Dan Brown’s blockbuster that “another one” has to be the first thought on the mind of any book buyer faced with yet another religious mystery from deep in the ancient history of the Roman Catholic Church.

This is not a worry you need have in the case of Matilde Asensi’s novel, While the marketing may have a whiff of Brown on it, the book itself is the English translation of a novel first published in Spanish in 2001. Asensi cannot be accused of being that kind of copycat.

Indeed, if I were likely to accuse the author of copying anything at all, it would be the spirit of James Hilton’s classic novel, Lost Horizon, or some of the works of Talbot Mundy that spring to my mind.

Asensi’s novel does have some features that resemble Brown, however. The central character is an academic, Sister Dr. Ottavia Salina, prized by the Vatican for her work identifying and restoring religious artifacts. She is a paleographer and her work does involve some interpretation of symbols.

There is a corpse, that of an Ethiopian man, which is found covered with esoteric symbols that need to be explained.

There is a mystery, which is hidden at the beginning, involving the disappearance of fragments of the so-called True Cross from churches and shrines all over the world. The dead man was found with some wooden splinters in his possession.

Ottavia finds herself seconded to an elite academic team led by Captain Kaspar Glauser-Roist of the Vatican’s Swiss Guard. She and Professor Faraq Boswell are tasked with interpreting the symbols and penetrating the mystery of the Staurofilakes, a secret order formed in 341 AD to protect the cross as a relic. The leader of this order is called the Cato. The challenge is to find him in order to figure out what’s going on. The clues are to be found in Dante’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy.

Yes, Asensi is out to do for Dante what Brown did for DaVinci, only the action in this novel is much more physical than most of Robert Langford’s adventure. Dante, it seems, was a member of the Staurofilakes, and his work is littered with allegorical clues which will lead to them. Our Vatican appointed trio has to work its way through the Inferno and the Purgatrio, the first two books of the trilogy, while visiting seven cities, each of which contains a trial related to the Seven Deadly Sins. Rome is chosen for its pride; Ravenna, for its envy; Jerusalem, for its wrath; Athens, for its sloth; Constantinople, for its greed; Alexandria, for its gluttony; and Antioch, for its lust.

After each harrowing stage of the quest, the team members find themselves marked with the same signs that were found on the dead man, and realize that they are in fact following the path of a mysterious initiation rite which will lead them only the Staurofilakes really know where.

In the meantime, Ottavia has some personal demons to deal with, For the first time in her celibate 39 years the nun is falling in love with a man, and does not know what to do about it. Worse, events in the life of her family bring her to the realization that the “family business” is not what she had always thought it to be, and that it is not something that she can accept as a part of her life. Realizing that she has been naive on so many levels is a hard thing for her, and she wrestles strongly with it before making her decisions.

In the final section of the book the three solve all the clues and find themselves admitted to the earthly Paradeisos which is the hidden home of the Staurofilakes order. This is the Hilton connection I mentioned earlier. Think “Shangri-la” or “Xanadu” and you’ve got the idea, though it has been recycled many times in many other stories. It is one of those hidden places where a select group of humanity has achieved a kind of spiritual and moral perfection, along with certain advances in science and technology which make it possible for them to thrive there.

How our intrepid adventurers cope with this is still very much a part of the testing through which they are being put. Only those who are worthy can know of this place, and even then, some must go back to the world to work quietly to recruit other worthy ones.

For the most part this was an engaging book, though it was sometimes hampered by what I took to be quirks in the translation. I hadn’t looked at the press material that came with the book and was some distance into it when it hit me that I was reading something that hadn’t been written in English to start with. A quick look at the back of the title page confirmed my suspicion.

You don’t have to have read Dante’s Divine Comedy to follow what’s going on here. There are large extracts in the text, and the characters explain it as they go. It might make you want to read it later on. The imagery pervades our culture and you’ll understand a lot more about so many B-movie supernatural apocalyptic thrillers if you do.