Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Sometimes, I wish I were Catholic, I don't know why

Conspiracies make for great fiction. Like ghosts, vampires and other hidden terrors, they are the sort thing we would like to believe exist, but our rational mind tells us they do not. Conspiracy fiction lets us enter a fantasy world, usually a political one, where the evils of politics are not forced by the realities of compromise, but by wicked forces.

Thanks to Watergate and the collapse of trust in institutions the 70s were a hey day with movies like Three Days of the Condor and the Parallax View. The X-Files ushered in a new era of paranoid drama in the 90s, reviving the notion that the government and the aliens were engaged in a long term struggle of which we caught occasional glimpses. The funny version was Men in Black, the creepier version was Taken.

In the book world, the most successful of conspiracy stories is of course Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code. It will be interesting to see if his Lost Symbol creates the same excitement. If successful, we can be sure that tourism will spike in his chosen settings and interest in previously unpopular subjects like the Templars will sky rocket.

It was the Catholic Church as a whole that sat at the center of the Da Vinci Code and its predecessor. And why not? Is there an organization as large, ancient, culturally pervasive and powerful as the Catholic Church? (the Illuminati, maybe?) They have cool commandos in the Jesuits, and their own Majestic-12 in Opus Dei.

Portugese author Luis Rocha explored the mysterious death of Pope John Paul I in his first book, the Last Pope. He has just followed it up with the Holy Bullet, which continues the intrigue. In this book, it is the attempted assasination of Pope John Paul II that drives the plot. This time the CIA, Opus Dei, the British SIS, an Islamic visionary and the unfortunate heroine of the first novel chase after the truth behind the near death of the Polish Pope.

The book can be a challenging read. Rocha writes in a indirect European style that is far more elliptical than the writing you usually find in American novels. The chapter ordering is also out of the ordinary. The chapters set in the current day are in order, but the many chapters in the past are not, which requires close reading.

The book forces you to pay attention, and I appreciate that the book assumes you know something about the Church and European politics. At one point, we see mention of "the German, Ratzinger." Now, hopefully we all know that is the current Pope. Plenty of other thriller writers would contrive some means of relating who Ratzinger is to those who are unsure. I am happy Rocha assumes we read newspapers.

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