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Dan Brown's Inferno: Something Nasty in the Subtext

30/05/2013 00:29 BST | Updated 28/07/2013 10:12 BST

By James Burge author of Dante's Code

Dan Brown's latest novel, Inferno, follows the actions of people who are fantastically intelligent. Two of them are heroic leads, a third joins them towards the end and one is a villain (or is he?). Robert Langdon, the main protagonist, is allowed to display a certain amount of confusion and uncertainty but he always has in reserve his post as a Harvard symbologist which, in case you hadn't worked it out, enables him to interpret symbols. He is accompanied by Sienna, a super-intelligent sidekick and love interest who, we are told, used to learn a new language every month. Although it is quite hard to detect all this intelligence directly from the text, their powers enable them to run rings around all comers by, for example, avoiding death by a trained assassin, even when unconscious in hospital, as well as effecting repeated narrow escapes from hordes of highly trained pursuers. The villain likewise demonstrates his demonic braininess even from beyond the grave through a series of posthumous codes and puzzles which the Harvard symbologist solves.

As a Dante scholar, I had hoped to be outraged by Inferno and was fully prepared to defend the famed poet from the vile traducements of the renowned novelist. I need not have worried. Dante has been brought in merely as a source of puzzles and to provide a welcome dash of medieval colour in an otherwise chrome-and-glass plot. All in all, despite Mr Brown's knack of including a factual error nearly every time he mentions him, Dante sustains very little damage.

His reputation will survive, as will the human race, according to the book. For that is the issue around which the plot centres. The major threat to humanity, as identified by (you've guessed it) the elite 'most influential private club on earth', is impending overpopulation. The question of whether that really is the big threat will no doubt give rise to a debate into which there is no time to enter here, apart from to say that not everybody agrees.

The denouement of Inferno offers a sort of solution to the global population explosion. It is concocted by the combined action of heroes, villain and aforementioned super-brain club, all covered by a light dusting of moral ambiguity. I have no intention of giving away the ending but even without knowing details the idea of global salvation being handed out by a small group of people who seem to inhabit a world composed mainly of brand names should make us feel queasy.

It makes me want to invoke a voice from the past and make a sharp historical contrast. Dante also wanted to save the world. His method was to try to persuade the human race to stop being so violent, stupid and selfish by pointing out to them the glorious, infinite mystery of creation. Perhaps that's a bit too medieval. In Dan Brown's Inferno there is no persuasion: a small, self-defining, self-congratulating elite foists its own solution onto an unresisting, uncomprehending world. Perhaps that's a bit too modern.

James Burge is the author of Dante's Code published by Endeavour Press.