Matilde Asensi,
The Last Cato
(HarperCollins, 2006)

Conspiracy theories are a lot of fun, especially if they date back hundreds of years. The Last Cato by Matilde Asensi has picked up on one of the perennial favorites, as have so many others -- the Catholic Church and its hidden inner workings.

To Matilde Asensi's credit, she did it before one Dan Brown wrote a book involving a certain code and a certain renaissance artist whom I'm sure I need not name and to which The Last Cato will doubtless be compared.

The story itself is pretty good. A man, his body tattooed with crosses in different styles and Greek letters spelling out the word "Stauros," or cross, is found dead after a plane crash in Ethiopia. Doctor Ottavia Salina, a nun working in the Vatican's archives, is asked to uncover the meaning of the markings on the man's body, without being told why. She soon discovers the truth, though -- the man was a member of an ancient secret society, the Staurofilakes, whose sole aim is the recovery and protection of the True Cross. She begins a quest, joined by the taciturn Captain Glauser-Roist and the handsome and charming Professor Boswell, to discover more about the Staurofilakes and its role, both in history and in the events occurring in the church. With Dante's Purgatorio as a guide, the three central characters must journey to seven cities, each of which represents a deadly sin.

Not too difficult to follow, really, and the book is fairly well executed. However, a thriller it's not. It takes a little while to settle into its story, and the most interesting scenes are the ones where the characters are figuring out what the next test will be. The translation (always a concern) is serviceable but not particularly brilliant, and some sentences are a little awkward.

One particular issue in the book, however, cannot be explained away, and that is the fact checking. Some statements are completely erroneous, and this was something that should have been fixed. For example, it is simply not true to state that the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches split because "Rome insisted that the pope was the only true descendant of Peter," while the other patriarchs believed "that they were the apostle's legitimate successors." The churches split for several reasons, but that wasn't one of them.

Though there are a few unlikely occurrences and coincidences in the book, as there are bound to be, it's not completely worthless. The main character, specifically, is interesting and funny, intelligent without sacrificing a fairly accurate, feminine viewpoint, something not every author can pull off. The story, as I said, is interesting in its way. And besides, if it does nothing else, The Last Cato may well make you fall in love with Dante.

by Theo deRoth
27 May 2006

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