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The Secret Supper    by Javier Sierra order for
Secret Supper
by Javier Sierra
Order:  USA  Can
Atria, 2006 (2006)
Hardcover, CD
* *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

Let me begin by whole-heartedly recommending The Secret Supper, Javier Sierra's international best-seller which was originally published in 2004 as La Cena Secreta in Spain and is now finally available in Alberto Manguel's excellent English translation.

However, before you begin reading The Secret Supper, one of the most provocative and interesting novels of the last decade, you might want to prepare yourself in several ways:

• First, absolutely forget about other recent novels that attempt to develop similar fictional themes (e.g., The Da Vinci Code and its many clones) because Sierra's singularly remarkable novel deserves special consideration for the ways in which the author masterfully confronts the theme of conflict between faith, reason, passion, and truth;
• second, consult the library or the Internet and find yourself a viewable copy of Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece, The Last Supper, which you will probably want to consult frequently as you travel along the labyrinth of Sierra's plot; the original of The Last Supper, incidentally, appears on the north wall of the refectory of the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan;
• third, take some time to reacquaint yourself with the story of Jesus' final days, the crucifixion, and the aftermath as that story appears in the Christian gospels of the New Testament;
• and fourth, keep in mind Leonardo da Vinci's advice to one of the characters in The Secret Supper: 'Everything, absolutely everything has a hidden meaning.'

The action begins in 1497. Pope Alexander VI and the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church have received cryptic messages from someone who has mysteriously identified himself (or herself) as the Soothsayer, a self-proclaimed prophet of apocalyptic dangers. Because of what the Soothsayer has said, the Catholic church worries that it is about to be jeopardized by a sinister plan which threatens to undermine and replace Christianity with something like Platonism and 'turn Milan into a new Athens.' Moreover, one of the people suspected of being somehow involved in or privy to the secret strategy is none other than Leonardo da Vinci, the artistic genius who has recently been commissioned to complete a painting at the new monastery in Milan.

Father Agostino Leyre, the novel's narrator, is being sent from Rome to Milan to find the identity of the Soothsayer and determine the scope and plausibility of his disturbing claims. Moreover, Father Agostino must somehow confront the unpredictable and rebellious Leonardo da Vinci - an 'impudent scoundrel' and 'strange prodigy, God's most singular creature' - and discover in spite of overwhelming odds the extent of Leonardo's knowledge of what the Vatican worries may be one of the most pernicious heretical schemes to have ever challenged Christianity.

Join Father Agostino in his pursuit of the truth (and his passionate determination to solve 'a riddle worthy of the Sphinx'), as he navigates uneasily in a world of subterfuge, esoteric writings, aesthetic duplicity, and murder. As you do so, you might want to consider the following features in Leonardo's painting: Why has the artist omitted the Holy Grail, halos, and the Eucharistic Bread? Whose images really appear among the disciples? Why does the disciple who is apparently Saint Peter have a knife in his hand? While considering the painting (and Sierra's text), you might also want to consider the significance of Leonardo's provocative statement: 'Years ago, I learned that if you wish to hide something ... the best place to do so is where everyone can see it.'

And, finally, you ought to consider carefully Leonardo’s advice to an apprentice: 'All appearances are deceiving. And truth lies where you least expect to find it.'

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