Time to Change the Code

What happens when Dan Brown meets Indiana Jones? In the case of Michael Cordy's latest, we have a race through jungles filled with creepy crawlers, in search of an ancient manuscript that holds the secret to eternal life

The Sourceby Michael Cordy. Bantam Press, 364 pages, $24.95 (Hebrew version: "Hamakor," translated by Nira Barak; Opus Press, 358 pages, NIS 89)

Something of a hybrid of "The Da Vinci Code" and the Indiana Jones movies, Michael Cordy's thriller "The Source" offers a tale of a mysterious and baffling ancient manuscript that leads its seekers into lush jungles full of dangers and the kind of disgusting creatures Indiana would have been happy to make quick work of with a single flick of his knife.

While Dan Brown's bestselling book might not have solved any real theological riddle, it definitely did decipher a new formula for profitable writing. Initially, the historical-mystery books were huge fun and considerably entertaining (one particularly good example is "The Historian," by Elizabeth Kostova), and even provided popular lessons in history or historical fiction. However, with the passage of time, the formula seems to have worn thin from overuse, and the chances of coming across an original and surprising book are dwindling. That's what happens when there's such an abundance of books in the same genre.

In keeping with the now familiar formula, "The Source" contains a secret that the evil Roman Catholic Church wants to hide, while simultaneously exploiting it for its own ends. There's the senior clergyman imbued with faith who is prepared to do anything to fortify the church?s shaky status. And there's the skilled and frightening murderer who is controlled by the clergyman and has himself become devout, and is prepared to do anything for the sake of the church.

As usual in this genre, there is an ancient manuscript packed with unknown secrets. In this case it is the Voyich manuscript - which, incidentally, does really exist, is kept at Yale University, and is written in letters and words that no one understands. Despite all the efforts by cryptologists, including people from the American security establishment, it remains undeciphered and, according to Cordy, is the most mysterious manuscript in the world. We therefore have reason to suspect that it will serve as a basis for several additional, not entirely necessary, books.

The novel's plot is driven by the premise that Dr. Lauren Kelley of Yale has in fact managed to decipher the manuscript. When she does, she learns that it describes an enchanted journey into the heart of the Amazonian jungles, which contain an enchanted garden with a lake whose waters can cure the infirm. The predictable and inevitable literary outcome is that the pregnant Kelley is attacked by an agent of the church and sinks into a coma. Several people become convinced that the garden exists, and set out to reach it through jungles that are crawling with dangers.

Geologist Ross Kelley decides to go in the hope of saving his wife and their unborn daughter. A 450-year-old Catholic nun, Sister Chantal, the garden's custodian, hopes to pass her responsibilities to the replacement she has chosen. And the representatives of the church head for the garden in the hope of taking it over and establishing a new Vatican there, where miracles will take place on a regular basis.

But the book doesn't work, because Cordy fails to create characters with whom we can really identify. You don't care when Sister Chantal will choose to bring her long life to an end. Nor is it easy to become especially concerned over whether Ross will save his wife and child.It could be that another reason "The Source" doesn't work is that readers have simply grown tired of seeing the same formula recycled over and over again. One of the key moral questions the book raises is how we receive forgiveness and who exactly can grant it. Nonetheless, there is one sin that even the Holy See cannot forgive: that a book called "The Source" is so derivative.

One thing that does distinguish "The Source" from its many brethren in the genre is that Leonardo da Vinci has no role in the background story. In the dangerous quest to the heart of the rain forests of Peru, "The Da Vinci Code" genre is slowly abandoned in favor of the Indiana Jones genre. In the spirit of the elegance and good taste that characterize the movies from which we know the intrepid archaeologist, one of the characters in the book falls into a mountain of bat guano in which millions of roaches are burrowing. We also encounter gigantic worms that have sharp teeth, move at the speed of snakes and can devour a human being in minutes. This might be one of those stories that would fare better on the big screen than between the covers of a book.

There's also another similarity to Indiana Jones. Here too, the characters leave a wake of destruction behind them, ruining places that had stood for thousands - or in this case, millions - of years before their arrival.

It must be admitted that there is something captivating about the fictional theology at the basis of "The Da Vinci Code" - in the egalitarian religion Brown proposes, it was a well-planned conspiracy that kept women out of powerful positions in the church. Instead of this, "The Source" offers a search for an ancient garden that is the place where life on earth began, the beginning of evolution.

If there's any ideology lurking here, it's an environmental one, sending out the subliminal message that it's really not nice to destroy jungles. And maybe this too is part of the book's problem. Even the fictional theology in "The Da Vinci Code" offers some sort of consolation, of the sort that New Age readers are looking so hard to find. But what consolation can one possibly find in the message of Darwinism - an appeal against harming gardens and trees?

Shahar Ilan is a Haaretz journalist.