From Secrets of the Code

What the French are Saying About The Da Vinci Code

It looks like French readers may soon join American Da Vinci Code devotees who genuflect by the Louvre museum’s inverted pyramid. Within a week of the thriller’s March 2004 release it was the country’s number-three bestseller and prestigious Left Bank publisher JC Lattès had shipped some 70,000 copies. The alluring French cover shows the Mona Lisa peering from behind a torn scarlet background.

Frenchmen and women expecting critics to dismiss the book outright or lambaste its fanciful interpretation of Parisian topography, French culture and linguistics, must have been surprised by the generally positive reviews and skyrocketing sales.

The highbrow Lire, while scolding Brown for sounding like a high school lecturer on pre-Christian symbols, called him a “virtuoso at staging” who has produced an “intelligent entertainment and not a pure marketing ploy.”

The leading weekly magazine Le Point declared that France would be able to judge for itself now, having watched the book’s phenomenal rise abroad. Anne Berthod of the influential weekly L’Express applauded the “Machiavellian plot and infernal pacing,” calling the book an “erudite crime novel” that entices you to take another look at da Vinci’s Last Supper.

But few French reviewers consider Dan Brown’s thriller a work of literature, preferring to class it as genre fiction. Delphine Peras writing in the daily France Soir had faint praise: “I’m not saying it’s a bad book, it’s the perfect vacation read… a vending-machine book.” Clichés and “tricks” to keep the reader breathlessly turning pages, she noted, “risk ruining the pleasure of a well-balanced plot.” Peras quotes Montpellier bookseller François Huet as saying he put down the book, finding it “heavy handed” and written “with a spatula” – meaning in a slapdash manner.

While most French readers appear to share Peras’ judgment, the book’s literary merits are a secondary consideration.

Public interest in Opus Dei, the Knights Templar and Priory of Sion, and the marital status of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, has proved remarkably widespread, giving rise to earnest discussions about the book on street corners and in so-called “philosophy cafés”. What appears to fascinate French readers most is the tantalizing prospect put forward in the book that former president François Mitterrand and surrealist poet-playwright Jean Cocteau might have been entwined with secret societies.

The importance to the French of the Louvre as a historic royal residence and the country’s first and foremost museum of fine art can’t be exaggerated. Mitterrand’s glass pyramid remains controversial. Questions regarding the political influence of the Vatican and Opus Dei, and the power of religious symbols, are highly topical.

A secular Republic of about 60 million inhabitants, France is home nonetheless to large numbers of Catholics and Protestants, and some 5 million Moslems, and is struggling with church-versus-state issues, particularly those involving the freedom to display religious symbols in public schools and workplaces. And then along comes Robert Langdon…


David Downie is an American journalist based in Paris. Copyright @2004 by the author.