The Last Cato — Review by Chris

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A reviewer states this book “will do for Dante what Dan Brown did for da Vinci.” I hope it does.

The Last Cato succeeds on a number of levels. The three characters are assembled for specific reasons, rather than by the author’s far-reaching coincidence. Unlike another popular writers’ characters who are expert divers 20 years after an hour-long course at the academy or know how to slow the heart like a yogi, Asensi’s characters are scholars with credentials of their own — and don’t present “coincidences” that require a test of my willful suspension of disbelief. The story is compelling and the writing is fun and pleasant to read, never getting stuffy despite the serious nature of the story. Not to mention the book gives us something we rarely, if ever, see: nuns as action heroes.

It also made me pull out my own copy of The Divine Comedy, which I now must re-read in a new light.

In The Last Cato, Dr. Ottavia Salina, a learned scholar and nun who works in the Vatican’s historical archive, is asked to research the religious significance of a dead man’s tattoos that appear to be Christian in origin. She is assisted by the captain of the Swiss Guards, a stern man she gives the unspoken nickname of The Rock.

It seems the dead man whose tattoos they were investigating was found with a remnant of the True Cross, the cross on which Jesus Christ was supposed to have been crucified. Other remnants of the cross continue to disappear from churches around the world, even under strict guard, so the two join another scholar to find the culprits and, hopefully, the rest of the cross.

What they find is the Staurofilakes, an ancient society charged with the protection of the True Cross. However, much like other ancient religious societies, the Staurofilakes fell out of favor with the church, which collected its pieces of the cross and discarded the faithful. The sect was reputed to have vanished — but the dead Ethiopian proved that what was once legend was flesh. A few clues about the crosses and tattoos ring a bell with the captain, whose well-thumbed copy of Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy reveals the unexpected.

At first I didn’t like part of the ending, but it’s growing on me. Part of it I expected, but the rest was too fantastical for me at first. However, because my mind may change, I’m not ready to pass judgment on that yet.

Finally, the book is the test of excellent translation: the original was written in Spanish, but the English version does not really read like a translation. The language is natural and has the same cadence I would expect from a book originally written in English.

Despite my evolving opinion about the ending, I highly recommend the book. It’s a great adventure with some wonderful characters. Please read it and tell me what you think.

Oh, and visit the Web site — it's very cool!


Carole said...

I talked to you several times while you were reading this, and your comments got me hooked. Now your review seals it--I'll be reading it in 2008!

Carole said...

Okay, many months later, I've finally had a chance to read The Last Cato. I loved the concept of the story, very clever, but I almost didn't finish this book. The writing just wasn't equal to the premise. While reading it, I re-read Chris' review, and it helped a bit to remember that this was a translation, but that only goes so far.

Numerous times throughout the book I felt that the word choices were just inappropriate--it was a huge distraction.

One thing that I initially liked about the book was that a nun was the main character, but then I started to get that sinking feeling that the book was going to annoy me--many times the only reason an author has a nun or a priest as a character is to have them break their vows or fall from grace. I always find that cheap and I'm ultimately disappointed.

Once the rhythm of the book was established--the characters move through the different challenges to pass the tests which will ultimately cleanse them of the seven deadly sins leading them to paradise on earth--I wanted it to hurry up already. By challenge 4 or 5, I wanted to speed through it to get to the end.

An interesting story that I wanted to be better than it was. I wish I could read it in its original Spanish to assess the true quality of the writing. That brings to mind another topic worthy of discussion--is it poor writing or poor translation? How many works have suffered because the translator lacked the skills needed to convey more than just the author's words?