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A better read than Da Vinci Code!
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February 21, 2005
ay back in 1975, David Lodge, a professor of modern English literature, wrote Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses (in Britain and America), and Small World, which launched the new sub-genre of campus novels.
Inspired by that masterpiece of satire by Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim (1954), on provincial British academic life, and C P Snow's The Masters (1959), a classic study of a college election, and provoked by the malicious gossip that went around the corridors of academe -- more venomous than that in communist party labyrinths -- it gave rise to a slew of campus novels.
But students' experiences didn't find a place in the first flush of campus novels that came in the 1990s with Dona Tartts's The Secret History, a hybrid of the college novel and a thriller set on the East coast.
The Secret History was essentially a metaphor for the sense of emptiness and ennui that gripped the brightest and the best: behind the glitz, orgies and drug abuses lay a sense of helplessness (shades of F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby) and the fickleness of the American Dream.
Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason's The Rule Of Four (Dial Press, special Indian price, Rs 500) is on the same level -- a cross between a college novel and a thriller with all the cut-and-thrust of academic intrigues and double dealings.
The Rule Of Four has been written by two graduates, Caldwell and Thomason, of the Ivy League -- Princeton and Harvard, which also becomes a reflection of American academic life, spiced with intrigue and suspense.
The mystery is spun around Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, one of the most treasured and least understood books of early Renaissance western painting.
For many years, scholars debated the identity and intention of Hypnerotomachia's mysterious author, Francesco Colonna. The novel describes the chase by Princeton students and professors to be the first to work out the authorship, aims and meaning of the ancient text.
Intertwined within the chase is a love story between Tom, the narrator, and his girlfriend, Kate, and reflections on class, wealth, gender, and race on the American campuses.
So, the novel works at two levels -- a thriller at one end, and reflections on the ivory-tower existence of American campus life.
The mystery side of the novel describes how Tom and his friend Paul are obsessed with Hypnerotomachia, a book that "ensnared men's souls".
Tom inherited the interest from his father, a failed historian who died in a car crash; Paul acquired the interest from an ancient art dealer, one of university's trustees, and another historian, both friends of Tom's father.
As Tom and Paul work through the text, they crack the secret messages, one by one.
But to decode the book, they have to master several disciplines, all the arcana of the Renaissance mythology -- Cabala (or secret Jewish mythology), Eastern mysticism, Pythagorean numerology, and much else besides.
Towards the end, Paul recognises a secret message for future generations in the novel, tucked away in a beautiful bottle. It is a desperate plan devised by Francesco Colonna to save the arts and the classics from Florentine prophet Savonarola, who had apparently ordered the burning down of all classical literature.
But it isn't the decoding of the text that matters; the central chase involves the mastery of a dozen disciplines and hundreds of texts that evoke the encyclopedic culture of the Renaissance, which required knowledge of Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Chaldean (ancient Babylonian) cultures.
More than the who-done-itry or the deciphering of the vast metaphysical jigsaw puzzle, it is the intellectual chase across many humanistic disciplines that makes the book so different from the many mystery thrillers that come our way.
In some ways, the book reminds you of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose and Gatsby (and the recent bestseller, Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, though this is much better written and has much more to chew on), which makes it altogether a splendid read.
A final question remains: what are the sources of the campus novel's attraction, for both writers and readers?
One reason is that the university is a kind of microcosm of society at large, in which the drives and conflicts of life in the street outside are displayed and may be studied in a cool, detached way.