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The Streets of Paris
Like millions of other Americans, I have recently read The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown. But unlike millions of other Americans, I don’t live in America. I live in Paris, where much of the novel is set.
I love it when novels or films are set in locations that I know well. I enjoy seeing things I know through someone else’s eyes, which can give the story a personal side, immediacy. I realize that minor mistakes can simply slip through. They make us smile. Then there’s Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.
First, I should say that I enjoyed this novel. I raced through it as one should race through a best-seller thriller. But every once in a while, I felt a little bump in the road, not enough to make me stop reading, or to pull out a map of Paris to verify something that didn’t seem right, not even enough to make me really think about what I was reading beyond the story of Robert Langford–no, sorry, I just checked, and it’s Robert Langdon. But then the ride seemed to be getting bumpier and bumpier, and the bumps bigger and bigger (I’ll get back to these bumps later). And I finally came to a stop on page 139, as Sophie and Robert are speeding towards the sanctuary of the American Embassy, and “cut sharply past the luxurious Hôtel de Crillon into Paris’s tree-lined diplomatic neighborhood. The embassy was less than a mile away now.” I’m stopping here for a few hours, because I’m going to the Place de la Concorde to measure the distance between the entrance to the Hôtel de Crillon and the entrance to the American Embassy. Also I have to get a book for my daughter, Leah at an English bookstore that’s also near Concorde. … I’m back.
Now, never having stayed at the Hôtel de Crillon, I wasn’t sure exactly where it was when I was reading this novel, but I had a fair idea. I actually thought it was a bit farther from the Embassy than it really is. I can now state that it is 50 steps away. I should explain that these are not 50 paces, but steps. There are a lot of French police armed with machine guns and wearing bullet-proof vests around the Embassy, not to mention a lot of tourists and the too-dignified doormen of the Crillon, so I decided to go for discreet. Plus, if the police see that I’m measuring the distance, they may very well take me for a terrorist planning on blowing up the American Embassy, and they might arrest me, or even shoot me. I’m willing to take a métro ride to verify something, but I’m not willing to get arrested for it–or shot.
Anyway, I’m fairly tall, so I would estimate that my 50 steps would probably be the equivalent of between 40 and 45 yards. Whereas it’s true, as Sophie muses, that this is less than a mile, this strikes me as similar to saying that the Eiffel Tower is taller than Edith Piaf. So, I started wondering, is this supposed to be a funny novel? Or is Dan Brown just incredibly sloppy? Or is there another more sinister explanation? Is it part of “The Dan Brown Code?”
Let’s now go back to some of the other oddities in this novel. We first meet Robert Langdon is his room at the Hôtel Ritz. A French policeman comes to take him to the Louvre to help with a murder investigation. Although I’ve never stayed at the Ritz I have eaten at the restaurant, from which I stole a box of matches (which I’ve never used), but which has the address on it: 15 Place Vendôme. So one can only wonder why the car would go south past the Opéra, and then cross the Place Vendôme in Chapter 3? They are apparently going fairly fast, with the siren on, and they have time to have a short conversation, plus Robert has time to reflect.
When I read this, I had the impression that the trip took possibly 15 or 20 minutes. But the actual distance is really quite short. The other day I walked it–without benefit of siren–in 12 minutes, on tourist-crowded sidewalks. In the post midnight streets of Paris there would be almost no traffic, so I would be hard to imagine its taking much more than one minute, certainly not two.
There also seems to be an armchair tourist perspective of Paris. Robert glances at the Eiffel Tower to his right, but from the position of someone sitting in a car, the Eiffel Tower isn’t visible from the Rue Castiglione. They then cross the Rue de Rivoli into the “wooded section of the Rue Castiglione.” As they say in French, “Bizarre, bizarre.” This street doesn’t cross the Rue de Rivoli. There is a path in the Tuileries Gardens that would correspond to it, but there isn’t access to it from the Rue de Rivoli. There is an iron fence with a gate, but the gate is locked at night. And even if it were open, there are steps to go up and then steps to go down. They would have to have Harry Potter’s flying car to manage that.
Again, in the park, Robert glances around, and sees some more tourist sights: the Pompidou Center and the Musée d’Orsay. But these aren’t visible from the Place du Carrousel, except possibly from a helicopter. But he can also now see, ahead, the Louvre! However, from the Place du Carrousel you are already surrounded on three sides by the Louvre. (This is why you couldn’t see the Pompidou Center or the Musée d’Orsay.) From here, the policeman drives up on the plaza, and the “Louvre’s main entrance was visible now. . . La Pyramide.” But it would have been visible when they had first seen the Arc du Carrousel (through the Arc).
From the time they drive onto the plaza until they get to the Pyramide, Robert and Sophie again have time to discuss the Pyramide and the French police captain. Well, it’s a big plaza, but not that big. I’m not going to go there now to pace it off (maybe I’ll do it later, we’ll see), but it’s certainly not 100 yards from the edge of the plaza to the entrance. (Yep, I did go back. And this time I even paced it! Ridiculousness be damned! Besides, the Louvre guards, unlike the Embassy guards are armed only with walkie-talkies. They don’t scare me. And I counted 80 yards.)
So, anew, I ask myself, is this sheer sloppiness? Or perhaps idiocy? Or. . . is it THE DAN BROWN CODE?
Is there a clue for non-Parisians on page 18? Something that should shock anyone, or at least make him or her go, “Huh?” “Despite the estimated five days it would take a visitor to properly appreciate the 65,300 pieces of art in this building….” Do the math. That’s over 13,000 works of art a day. The Louvre is open only 9 hours a day; so if you don’t stop for lunch, Dan Brown assumes you can “properly appreciate” slightly more than 24 works of art per minute! That’s almost 2.5 seconds per work. I once went to the Louvre with a friend, and I’m sure we spent at least 20 minutes just looking at the Winged Victory. I guess we don’t know how to “properly appreciate” art.
One possible explanation for Dan Brown’s sentence could be a misunderstanding. Being privileged in being able to go to the Louvre almost whenever I want, I did try to “properly appreciate” the works in the Louvre by going through each section–except all the drawings–methodically, and it does take about five days, although not nine-hour days. After about three hours my eyes start to glaze over. And I’m willing to accept Dan Brown’s number of 65,300 works in the Louvre. So what’s the answer to this seeming paradox? Simply that only a small part of the works that the Louvre has in its collection is on display at any one time. But that’s not what Dan Brown has written. So why did he write what he did without stopping to think “Whoa”? Why did not his editor when reading the manuscript say “Whoa”? Many people are cited on the acknowledgements page; why did not one of them say “Whoa!” Surely they can’t all be sloppy idiots. The explanation? THE DAN BROWN CODE!
One last thing in Chapter 3 bothers me, the police captain’s name: Bezu Fache. “Bezu” is not a French name. Up until recently, all French names had to be from the lists of Catholic saints. There is no Saint Bezu. So where did this come from? First, it does (to me, at least) suggest Beelzebub, and he is portrayed in a rather hellish light. But the way an anglophone would pronounce “Bezu” would be the same as the French pronunciation for a friendly kiss, “bisou.” “Bee Zoo.” And Fache means roughly, “to be angry.” So there is something absurd and contradictory here. Smells like THE DAN BROWN CODE strikes again.
Now they’re in the Louvre. But that’s another chapter. We’re still in the Streets of Paris. One thing that I find particularly strange is that when the trailer truck that passes under the Louvre, picking up a bar of soap (I’ll get back to that bar of soap), passes over the Pont du Carrousel and turns right on Pont des Saints-Pères. But you can only turn left onto this rue, because on the right, it becomes Quai Voltaire. I assume Dan Brown looked at a street map of Paris to find the name of the street–there really is a Pont des Saints-Pères and at the right place, and he should have seen that on the right was Quai Voltaire. I cannot believe that he is that sloppy! There are limits! This has to be part of the DAN BROWN CODE!
Otherwise, there is the trip from the Louvre to the Embassy, which I’ve already mentioned in part. I didn’t mention that they somehow get on the Champs-Elyseés, which is NOT between the Louvre and the American Embassy. Did Sophie take to scenic route for this American tourist? Hmm.
I think that’s enough to get my point across about the streets of Paris–tediousness should be left to Dogberry. (This reminds me, Dan Brown also states that it’s a well known fact that William Shakespeare was a Freemason. Since this isn’t mentioned in Chambers’ or Schoenbaum’s biographies, or in any other that I’ve seen, I wish he’d let me in on where he got this information.)
It’s only thanks to Brown’s novel that I’ve ever been inside Saint-Sulpice. I’ve always found it a fairly ugly church, square and heavy. At a glance, the inside is very cold. The church is not very old by French standards, finished only in 1733. I just checked the Internet for the date, and on the site they didn’t even mention the brass line that cuts across the floor of this church. But it really does exist! It was created as a sundial/calendar, though not a pagan one as Dan Brown says. It was used to determine as accurately as possible the spring solstice so that the correct Sunday of Easter would be celebrated–this according to a plaque in the church.
The only important error Dan Brown makes with the church is that there really isn’t a choir balcony for Sister Sandrine to hide in. Actually, there’s no place there that she could have hidden, except maybe the organ loft. And from the organ loft you can’t see the obelisk, and she needed a place. That’s just poetic license in my book, NOT the Dan Brown Code. But since I did make a trip there to check it out, for the record, there are no buttresses (page 55) and even if there were, they wouldn’t be visible from the front of the church, since the outside front of the church is so massive I had to walk around to be sure there weren’t any. And the brass strip that cuts across the floor does not bear “graduated markings, like a ruler,” (page 105). It is smooth. And it doesn’t “cleave the communion rail in two,” it stays stubbornly on the floor.
Inside the Louvre
Now, back to the Louvre. I don’t want to get nit-picky, so I won’t detail that near the entrance to the Grand Gallery there are no Caravaggios (the first one is near the middle of the gallery, maybe 600 feet in), which Saunière tears off the wall even though the painting are supposed to be suspended from the ceiling by cables. Neither are there grates that can fall at either end of this gallery. There is also a complication in that at the moment the Mona Lisa is not is its usual place: the Salle des Etats is closed for renovation, so the painting is temporarily at the end of the Grand Gallery. But it certainly used to be at the location described in the book. I wouldn’t want anyone to doubt Dan Brown’s accuracy!
No, I’m going to go right to the most shockingly inaccurate statement in this novel. Page 86. Paragraph 5. Sentence 3. “She grabbed a thick bar of soap….” This is one of the most blatant pieces of ethnocentrism I’ve ever encountered. This novel is supposed to be set in France! Obviously, Dan Brown has never been in France; otherwise he would know that FRENCH PEOPLE DO NOT USE SOAP. According to a real statistic in the Nouvel Observateur (know affectionately as the Nouvel Obs), the average French person uses 1.3 pounds of soap a year, which apparently comes out to be 4 or 5 bars a year. Soap is a precious commodity in France, and we certainly don’t leave it lying around public bathrooms where foreigners might steal it. Or even use it. I personally have never seen a bar of soap in a public washroom in France. They use liquid soap, which is more sanitary, and more difficult to steal.
I was also surprised that there would be a “heavy trash can under the sink.” Maybe, but who knows? And is it really possible to break one of the windows? Do the windows really look out over the Place du Carrousel? I decided that in my personal quest for accuracy I had to know. Therefore, I quite possibly became the first person in history ever to enter the Louvre for the sole purpose of looking at NOT the Mona Lisa, NOT the Venus de Milo, NOT the Winged Victory, but a toilet in the Grand Gallery. And I went only to look, not to use it.
Not being a complete idiot, I chose to go the first Sunday of September, when entrance is free. Carefully averting my eyes from any paintings, to keep my purpose pure, I hurried through the already crowded hallways, dodged through the Roman statues, sprinted left past the Winged Victory, and rushed, as if I had a real need (other than intellectual), to find the bathroom at the end of the hall. This was no easy matter, since the bathroom is right next to where they’ve now hung the Mona Lisa. The throngs thickened. Everyone in Paris and the Ile de France seemed to have decided to take advantage of this free day to give their regards to Mona. How many of them were here on the same mission I was, I wondered. How many would be crowded into the men’s room, seeking the truth?
At the risk of defiling the true purpose of my visit, I couldn’t resist a quick glance at the mysterious Mona as I sped by. She seemed to smile at me, and I’m sure her eyes followed me as I entered the men’s room. How that made me blush!
The men’s room made me start back in surprise. Rather than being the rather opulent public toilet that is described by Dan Brown–which anyone might easily expect in the context of the Louvre–this washroom seemed somewhat seedy, although clean. There is only one toilet stall, one urinal, and one sink. As I knew in advance, there were no “bars of soap” lying around as potential tracking device missile ballast loads. The trash container was relatively small and firmly attached to the wall, effectively foiling in advance anyone’s plans for using it to smash the window. But even more effectively foiling any such plans was the fact that there are no windows in this bathroom. As a matter of fact, it is not even against an exterior wall of the Louvre. One can (and I did) walk around the outside of this bathroom. It’s like a little toilet island in the moving tourist river of the Louvre’s hallways.
So, this non-existent window is already a problem–but then Sophie has to go and complicate things by looking out the damned window. And what does she see? She sees the Eiffel Tower (plausible), the Arc de Triomphe (normal), and Sacré-Cœur. Jesus! Why didn’t he quit while he was ahead? The other wing of the Louvre would block the view of Montmartre!
So now we’re assuming Dan Brown has moved the bathroom beyond the end of the Grand Gallery to the very extreme end of the Denon Wing of the Louvre, a section not open to the public. And he has added a window. Why not? And from the imaginary window the characters throw the non-existent bar of soap that falls on a truck passing on the Place du Carrousel. But the Denon Wing ends at the Esplanade des Tuileries, not the Place du Carrousel. So, I’ll admit I’m a bit confused here. I’m not sure if Dan Brown is moving the Place du Carrousel–and the Pont du Carrousel, and the Tuileries–or whether he’s just cutting off a few hundred feet of the Louvre. Well, the museum is too big anyway. Who’s got five days to look at all those paintings properly?
These are just a few of the errors that leap out if you’ve paid attention to the book and you know Paris or the Louvre. Practically everything concrete Brown describes is wrong.
Now, your reaction to this might possibly be, “Big deal,” or “So what?” or “Huh?” After all, this is only a novel. But on page –2 (or –1 if the page facing 1 is 0), the page entitled FACT, the last sentence is: “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” THIS is the key to THE DAN BROWN CODE!
For me, one of the main interests in this novel, besides the roller-coaster plot, was the information about the Holy Grail and the Priory of Sion. I’ve read a lot about Arthur’s court, have recently read “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” in Middle English, and read a reasonable amount on medieval history and the course of Christianity. And there was so much new information in Brown’s book. Why hadn’t I come across all this before? This is supposed to be accurate, just like the descriptions of artwork and architecture. Oh. I see.
I have come to the conclusion that all of these absurd–and easily verifiable (all you need is a street map of Paris and the little folded visitor’s guide they give you at the Louvre for most of them)–errors are deliberate: they were put in place to clue readers in that although he spins a nice alternate universe, we’re strictly in fantasyland.
The final absurdity is that when the final resting place for the secrets of Sion is revealed–beneath the inverted pyramid–Dan Brown fails to mention that this pyramid is not in the Louvre itself, but in the adjacent shopping mall, hidden between the Virgin Megastore and the food court and without the benefit of the Louvre’s security.