The Forbidden Book: A Novel

Joscelyn Godwin and Guido Mina di Sospiro
San Francisco: Disinformation Books, 2012. 282 pp.,
hardcover, $24.95.

The genre of occult and esoteric fiction has had a somewhat spotty history. Dion Fortune, Dennis Wheatley, Sax Rohmer, and Bram Stoker immediately come to mind as perennial favorites despite their limitations as writers. Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum marked a high point of style and erudition, though the author's cynicism indicated he had little sympathy for his chosen subject, secret societies. More recently, Dan Brown has hit the jackpot with page-turners such as The Da Vinci Code and The Lost Symbol, which in turn inspired a raft of imitators. With The Forbidden Book, one can imagine the authors Joscelyn Godwin and Guido Mina di Sospiro—both academics conversant with esoteric teachings—saying to themselves, "Surely we can do better than this tripe." And so they have.

The Forbidden Book is an engaging occult thriller, well-written and packed with esoteric lore, nearly all of it based on real-world sources. In both literary quality and depth of knowledge it beats Dan Brown at his own game. Thus it is singularly unfortunate that the book was released with so little fanfare and, presumably, a nonexistent promotional budget. If the novel had come out under Dan Brown's byline, it would likely have sold copies in the millions.

In a nod to Brown's formula, the novel's protagonist is a college professor, in this case Leo Kavenaugh of the Italian department at Georgetown University. Leo is invited to Italy by a former female intern with whom he'd fallen in love several years before, but to no avail, as Kavenaugh was a celibate member of the Franciscan Third Order. His former intern, Orsina, hails from a wealthy aristocratic family in the north of Italy and, despite her own love for Leo, has married a wealthy Scottish businessman. With ambiguous motives, she invites Leo to visit her family estate in Verona to help decipher a book of late Renaissance Hermeticism that has been presented to her by her uncle, the Baron Emanuele Riviera della Motta.

Rapidly Leo is drawn into intrigues and mysteries associated with the book and with the baron. A murder ensues, the rather hapless Italian police arrive, and matters get complicated. In the interest of not spoiling the plot, I will leave it at that. Suffice it to say that after a bit of a slow start, the book builds up a good head of steam and delivers a fascinating thriller replete with alchemical, magical, and contemporary political references.

What may not be obvious to most readers, however, is the novel’s subtext, a meditation on the work and life of Baron Julius Evola (1898–1974), the controversial Italian exponent of an esoteric and magical “Tradition” whose political implications captured the imagination of young Italian (and other European) post–World War II neofascists
from the 1950s up to the present.

The Forbidden Book’s Baron Emanuele Riviera della Motta is an Evola stand-in, complete with young black-shirted followers and a magical regimen modeled on one that Evola and his esoteric associates, a collection of occultists known as the UR group, began to expound in the 1920s. (For more on this, see Introduction to Magic by Julius Evola and the UR Group.)

What Godwin and Mina di Sispiro provide here is an imaginative rendering of the likely real-world impact of Evola’s doctrines brought into the present. It isn’t a pretty picture.

Another subtext is the personal and moral impact of subscribing to a path of transcendence that raises the seeker to a level above compassionate regard for others. Evola’s magical philosophy (like that of this novel’s baron) aims for a heroic victory over all downward-pulling forces, leading to the immortalization of one’s individual Self. The end result is to render oneself a god. Common sense might suggest that hoping to become a god is inviting the fate of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun.

The Forbidden Book plays out all these possibilities, imbedded in the story of Leo and Orsina’s conflicted love for each other and their quest for the spiritual meaning behind their mutual attraction.

The achievement of The Forbidden Book is its melding of occult thriller, esoteric explication, and social critique, all at a level of intelligence higher than the genre’s norm. My main criticism would be that the characterization is rather sketchy, a weakness that also plagues Dan Brown’s books.

That aside, if you are interested in an occult thriller which provides genuine esoteric insights instead of muddled hokum, The Forbidden Book beckons.

Jay Kinney

The reviewer, founder and former publisher of Gnosis magazine, is the author of The Masonic Myth (Harper Collins), which has been published in five languages. His article “Shhh! It’s a Secret: Grappling with the Puzzle of Free­masonry” appeared in Quest, Summer 2013.


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