Review of Matilda Asensi, ‘The Last Cato’ and ‘Iacobus’

Matilda Asensi, The Last Cato,Harper Paperback, reprint published 2000, ISBN 978-0060828585 for a look at reviews on amazon, click here.

Matilda Asensi, Iacobus (available as ebook)

In my last review, looking at Walter Ellis’ The Caravaggio Conspiracy, one of the themes that emerged was the sense of using art, artists and art historians to add both colour and depth to the story, that is, the addition of art makes the story distinctive. I dithered a bit about whether to include The Last Cato amongst the books reviewed for this blog, because in Asensi’s book, art plays a part, but maybe it is not  as explicit a story device  as in some other contributions to this genre. In many ways, the use of art, or of literature is just as one of many devices, but  Matilda Asensi here proves a master of her genre. What decided me to include The Last Cato here is the deployment of Dante’s Divine Comedy as plot device. Asensi uses a series of cantos from the ‘Purgatory’ as coded messages that have to be deciphered by a crack team of sleuths (consisting of a bluestocking archivist nun, a dashing archaeologist and the no-nonsense captain from the Vatican’s Swiss guards) hunting for missing fragments of the True Cross. Fragments of the True Cross are disappearing at an alarming rate from churches all over Europe, and our team of relic hunters are charged with both finding out why and of course identify the criminals behind this.

Asensi takes us on a merry chase that commences at the Vatican, where a manuscript, uncovered at the Monastery of St Catherine in Sinai needs to be deciphered, in order to yield a starting point for an elaborate, 7-part treasure hunt for clues, which will take the reader (and the unlikely investigating trio of nun, archaeologist and soldier) from Palermo, to Rome, to Ravenna, to Athens, Jerusalem and Alexandria. Each stage of the hunt follows a similar pattern: there is an artefact (for example a sarcophagus, or a tablet) that assigns a task to the hunters, and only on the successful completion of the tasks assigned, are they provided with the information that allows them to pursue the next stage of the quest. For each quest, there is a canto of the ‘Purgatory’, which both describes the task (Asensi displaying a lot of deftness here in offering alternative readings of Dante!) and furnishes the investigators with a clue on how to master the challenge, and there is just enough information to keep the reader guessing. Some sections are very ‘Dan Brown’, but this is nevertheless a rather compelling read. Where Asensi derives much of her narrative tension from is the way in which the relationship between the team of investigators subtly changes at each stage of the quest, with a different member of the team’s skills and character cast into focus on different challenges, and yes, romance inevitably blossoms.
The artefacts and locations used for the story are beautifully used and evocatively described, but for me, my favourite section focuses on Santa Maria in Cosmedin, which here becomes the secret entry into catacombs, tunnels and ultimately the Roman sewage system. 

Santa Maria in Cosmedin

Santa Maria in Cosmedin

The Last Cato is a fast-paced book, fun to read, and I loved the way in which the artworks and manuscripts are meaningful; it’s fun to read about Constantine the Great’s sarcophagus, but I do have one criticism, and that is the desperately poor proofreading for the ebook version, something that also mars Iacobus, by the same author. Asensi uses the same formula for this second book, establishing a first-person narrator (a man this time, in contrast to the female narrator of Last Cato), and again the protagonist reflects backwards, telling us the story of how he arrived where he is now, so as before, the narrator speaks of events that have resolved themselves, and he uses the opportunity to comment on some of his decisions.

Rough summary of the plot? A highly skilled Hospitaller knight returns from Cyprus to his native Spain and France in search originally of a relative, but as events unfold, he finds himself charged by none other than the Pope himself to discover the lost fortune of the suppressed Templars. There is- of course- a difficult to decipher manuscript that starts the hunt, which leads the narrator, in the company of two companions (one male, one female, recalling the formidable core trio for Last Cato) along the pilgrim’s trail to Santiago da Compostela. Yes, romance blossoms (of course), and all three characters change in the course of their journey beyond recognition, to arrive at a place, and an occupation, that provides a resolution for the various strands of the narrative. In Iacobus Asensi plays with architectural features of major buildings along the pilgrim route, and much of the fun of the book comes from imagining these features as carrying an alternative meaning.

Both books are great page turners, keep their reader hooked (well, if not all readers, it worked for me!), and ultimately, what she returns to again and again is the idea that for meaning to be found in objects, you have to look at them, think about them, and actually enjoy engaging with them, and then, they provide a key to an unexpected world of fun and adventure. The boundary line between fact and fiction is clearly drawn, but there is nothing obtrusive or jarring about the way she moves from one to the other. Fun to read, and great at evoking the past. What’s there not to like….

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One thought on “Review of Matilda Asensi, ‘The Last Cato’ and ‘Iacobus’

  1. Pingback: Historical novels as slices of time: Geoffrey Trease’s The Hills of Varna  | renaissanceissues

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