False pretences


Javier Sierra's The secret supper drew me into it under false pretences. It's commonly claimed that the number 1 reason why anyone picks up a book (unless they know in advance specifically what they want) is the cover. The most famous case of this was probably Captain Corelli's mandolin which had not particularly brilliant sales while it had this cover:
but rocketed 4 years later with its new cover design (a couple of prizes along the way doubtless helped too), and it's a great book:

So...cover of The secret supper looked good, and then the kicker, an interesting blurb on the back that suggested to me that Secret supper was going to be similar to Irving Stone's The agony and the ecstasy, which I'd read while on holiday in Rome years ago. Stone's book - made into a very good feature film with Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison - followed the life of Michelangelo as he painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling. I'm not claiming that it was 100% accurate; but it was a fascinating insight into the life of an artist at that period. Secret supper appeared to be an attempt to do the same for Leonardo da Vinci's portrayal of the last supper, the Cenacolo on the wall of the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.

However...in spite of the author's claim that the work was 90% accurate historically, the 10% made a big difference. The novel was actually yet another attempt to out Da Vinci The Da Vinci code. Leonardo is a closet Cathar determined to share Cathar theology with the rest of the world, a former Cathar is determined to "out" him, and a Dominican, who's just waiting to become a member of the Spanish Inquisition, is hot on his trail. It's all extremely daft.

The central puzzle, which according to the author was completely insoluble until the very end, could be solved by a 5 year old; which makes the last chapters fairly pointless reading. There's the odd interesting aside on notable names of the period; but the work as a whole is flat, the period detail lacking, and the characters - let's just say that characterisation isn't Sierra's strong point.

Having said which, I don't think all the problems with this novel are down to the author. I've read a fair number of novels in translation (Secret supper was originally published in Spanish); and it's only when you read a truly badly translated novel, that you realise how brilliant most translators are. I'm afraid that I can't say the same for the translator of this novel - the translation is really clunky. Some of it to be fair probably reads worse to a British reader than an American. The translator fairly consistently uses verbs in an Americanized way - for instance fit rather than fitted. To a British reader that can grate, but that aside, there are passages that are just plain clumsy, repeated words close together where an alternate could have been used, and sections where you are not at all sure what he actually means. It's just horrible. Javier Sierra is popular in Spain, so I would guess that the clumsiness of the writing is not down to him, but rather to the translation. But I'm sorry to say that whether or not it is Mr. Sierra's fault, I won't be picking up another of his books.


Popular Posts