Dan Brown is not the world’s greatest writer. The Da Vinci Code, as Anthony Lane said, is “baloney“. We know this.
But truth be told, I’m not sure Umberto Eco’s Holy Grail novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, is any better. It’s mortadella to the baloney, fails because it’s the perfect inversion of Da Vinci Code – too smart, too precious, drowning in self-conscious intricacy. Eco is one of those guys who can’t stop tapping you on the shoulder with all the obscure facts in his head. At times – most of the time – he seems more invested in trying to bamboozle you than storytelling.
That’s why I’m so grateful for The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington, an undeservedly obscure painter – probably because she was a she – tragically lumped in as a footnote in the Surrealist movement. She died in Mexico City in 2011. The Hearing Trumpet is her only novel.
The story begins the outskirts of an unnamed town in Mexico, where a deaf elderly English woman, Marian Leatherby, receives a hearing trumpet from her only friend. Suddenly gifted with hearing, Marian learns her no-account son plans on sending her off to an old folks’ home.
Marian’s adventure starts off with a droll, almost sitcom-like tone – and I mean that in the best possible way. But something magical happens midway through: a story-within-a-story unfolds, and so does the wider novel, into something truly glorious and cosmic, a grand, apocalyptic quest involving a Spanish abbess, the Holy Grail, the myth of Cupid, and series of riddles involving, well… you’ll just have to read to find out.
Which you should. There’s no better book on the Holy Grail that I’ve ever encountered, nor do I think I will. The Hearing Trumpet perfectly captures Leonora Carrington’s enigmatic, magically-imbued paintings in story form. It’s a fresh sprig of parsley from the garden, at a time when so much of popular culture is recycled, re-hashed, re-heated, and re-regurgitated.