Matilde Asensi’s novel, The Last Cato, deals with the ancient icons of The True Cross, the first Christian Emperor Constantine and his mother, Helena, Dante Alighieri’s Purgatorio and Dante’s pagan protector of Purgatory’s terraces, Marcus Porcius Catō Uticēnsis (95 BC–46 BC), also known as Cato the Younger, from which the title is derived. As has been true with every related historical-fictional novel since Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, Asensi’s The Last Cato is crammed with historical references that while more often than not correct, are used with such poetic license that their historical worth is diminished. That is not to say that The Last Cato is not an enjoyable read - it is. It also has in its favor a unique female perspective, as does Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth.
My current argument in reading this religious-intrigue fiction, supported by Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know - and Doesn't, is that the majority of readers lack the necessary education about religion and its historical-cultural significance to fully comprehend and therefore enjoy such novels. Just a brief review of the above stated inventory presents the inquisitive reader a heady task in preparing to properly read The Last Cato. Our attention-deficient society does not demand the rigors of such study and author Asensi does not necessarily require it. However, having some idea of Church History and The Divine Comedy would be an asset.
So, in popular culture, how did we get to our fascination with the intrigue of Christianity and its origins? I don’t mean the predictable, evangelical ilk of Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim F. LaHaye’s apocalyptic yawn. I am thinking more in terms of Umberto Eco’s fiction, such as Name of the Rose. Catholics and Non-Catholics alike cyclically have a fascination with the labyrinthine mystery that surrounds and permeates the history of Roman Catholicism. Dan Brown was not the first to take advantage of stories of myth attached to Christian theological and temporal development forged between the deaths of Sts. Peter and Paul during the persecution of Nero and the present day. Both of Brown’s books in the genera, Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code, deal first with secret church-related societies, The Illuminati in the former and Opus Dei. Umberto Eco’s historically-informed Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum dealt the Roman Catholic esoterica in a densely delicious manner that required much of the reader but rewarded the same for his or her effort.