- Author: José Luis Corral
- Reader: Eduardo de Lamadrid
- Date: 3/2/12
On July 7, 2011 church authorities in the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela publicly confirmed that a priceless 12th century manuscript had been stolen from a safe in the cathedral vault. The Codex Calixtinus, which contains a kind of travel guide to the famous pilgrimage way of Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, was missing from the cathedral’s archives. When the theft was discovered, the keys to the safe where the Codex was kept were still hanging in the lock.
The illuminated Codex was apparently removed from the cathedral archives without forced entry and reported missing to police the following day. Church staff had spent hours looking for the manuscript before calling in local police. Dozens of police experts examined the cathedral for any evidence and reviewed video from five security cameras. Unfortunately, none of the video cameras was trained onto the area where the safe was kept. The cathedral dean said that only he and two other archivists had access to the manuscript and that none of the other documents and objects kept in the safe were removed.
These real life events are the fertile grounds which form the basis and inspiration for El códice del peregrino, a historical thriller which imagines the unknown story behind the theft. The novel narrates the story of two Argentine lovers and partners, Diego and Patricia, who are hired by Jacques Roman, a mysterious French millionaire with ties to a Catholic secret society, to steal the Codex. Formerly art historians and now involved
in the illicit commerce of works of arts of illegal provenance, this is their first foray as actual thieves. In spite of their initial trepidation, they agree to do the job because of the great amount of money involved (a million euros) and because extracting the Codex from its “secure” chamber appears to be incredibly simple.
From the moment when they become involved in the affair, the Argentines suspect that the manuscript contains facts about the origins of the Catholic religion and the lineage of Jesus. After painstaking research and planning every detail in advance, they receive the key to the chamber from a mysterious contact known to them only as “the Pilgrim”.
They suspect the Pilgrim is a priest whose motives are not financial and this leads to further speculation about the reasons for the theft, since the manuscript is so wellknown it cannot be resold. Diego researches the origins of the Codex and Patricia delves into the Gospels to find more about Saint James the Elder, the patron saint of the Cathedral.
In spite of the Codex’s economic and historical value, the Cathedral’s security arrangements are indeed minimal and Diego and Patricia carry out the job with little difficulty. Later, Jacques Roman reveals to them that the manuscript is much more than a guide for pilgrims. Hidden in its pages by a medieval technique is the Gospel of Saint James the Elder, one of Jesus’ favorite disciples. It reveals information about Jesus’ genealogy and the conflictive origins of Christianity which could destroy the faith of every Catholic with its contradictions of the Nicene creed: it denies the divinity of Jesus Christ, it denies the Holy Trinity and the Virginity of Mary and, as if that weren’t enough, claims that Mary is the mother of a line of men and women from the same bloodline as Jesus.
To the secret Catholic society, Sodalitium Pianum and perhaps to the Vatican itself, this gospel is a harbinger of the Apocalypse and they will use all their money and power to destroy it definitively.
So is the reader dealing with yet another of a list of historical thrillers that reveal the secret genealogy of Jesus, by means hidden codes in manuscripts and two protagonists, both amateurs, who by themselves discover truths which have mysteriously eluded the real specialists in these fields for centuries, and who unravel historical enigmas seemingly on demand? The answer is both yes and no.
On one level, the author proposes to imitate the style of immensely popular thrillers of the genre, such as The Da Vinci Code and others, and incorporates their archetypal ingredients and characters into the narrative. Fortunately, this proposal is treated with a healthy dose of humor and in a certain measure as a gag. More than one passage in the novel avers that these stories of ecclesiastical conspiracies are no more than fodder for “light” bestsellers.
On another level, after making clear what he wants to write and impart, the author has worked very hard to produce the best possible narrative with those characteristics. He has successfully created two interesting protagonists endowed with freedom of thought and action, and the intrigue which he has woven around the real events will propel the reader to continue on from the very start. He has managed to make the twists and turns of the plot unpredictable and the revelations seem credible. For example, the documentation about the Gospel personages is so rigorous as to give the protagonists’ discoveries some basis-in-fact.
Also well-documented is the information about the Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and its attendant legends, the historical background, and the Codex itself that the author provides and narrates in uncomplicated language, making it very accessible to many readers. However, making Diego and Patricia the vehicles for divulging the information renders the dialogues somewhat implausible. If the protagonists at times seem superhuman, it is because their dialogue often devolves into long discourses and historical exposition. Patricia seems most guilty in this respect, as she discourses about the genealogy of Jesus with information she has miraculously found in a few minutes. She discovers the secret the Codex harbors on her own, without knowing the subject of said secret. She talks about complicated subjects with the easy erudition of a professor, and since the author is himself a professor of medieval history, it makes his intervention in the text more ransparent. These are the most salient shortcomings of the novel, although in all fairness, they may form part of the author’s satirical take on the historical thriller.
In deference to the thriller genre, the novel includes a police procedural secondary plot which is also rendered plausibly. We can imagine the members of the police corps behaving as they do, given the little they have to act on. And it as so happened in real life, the author takes the opportunity to denounce the little interest shown in culture by Spaniards and the lax security that prevails in the realm of their cultural patrimony.
Another secondary plot, the love between the protagonists, plays an important role. Patricia has doubts about continuing their illegal activities and yearns for a normal life. Diego, on the other hand, loves money and will continue to do what he does best as long as he can. The novel is replete with the couple’s discussions of the issue, emotional moments and reconciliations, which give it that “human” touch necessary to somewhat counteract the waves of information which threaten to overwhelm the reader.
In short, the story as told is entertaining and provides a convincing vision of what the theft may have been like, drawing on news accounts about the events and circumstances, and the ensuing police investigations. There is enough suspense and topicality to make this novel suitable for translation into English.