A Summary and Review of Hugo Soskin’s
The Cook, The Rat, and the Heretic:
Living in the Shadow of Rennes-le-Château
(Chichester: Summersdale Publishers Ltd., 2008)
Hugo Soskin is every bit as good a story teller as his father Henry Lincoln (originally Henry Soskin), but that he has chosen, for the most part, to write satirically and disrespectfully of what Henry has written about with considerable solemnity is just the first of the tell-tale signs that Hugo’s autobiographical tale probably should be read as classically Oedipal, even consciously and jokingly so, except that the mother in the classic triangle is mysteriously absent. There was a divorce, but Hugo claims that had nothing to do with it. Mother or no mother, if this book doesn’t kill Henry Lincoln and Lincoln’s mythic Rennes-le-Château, then nothing will.
The subtitle suggests that Hugo is tired of living “in the shadow” of Henry Lincoln or at least of the mountain of myth Henry has created and inspired (“myth” being a form of “truth,” by the way, not its opposite), but we are never given any clue as to how or why this Oedipal relationship began or developed, for Hugo’s story begins late in the game, as he’s entering middle age. All we see is the Oedipal slapstick sword delivering comic blow after comic blow upon the hapless father, usually referred to as “the Old Man,” seemingly in authorial acknowledgment of the Oedipal stereotype being played with. The motive for such blows seems as baseless as, say, Iago’s notorious envy in Othello, but the blows are delivered with such comic fury that we know it’s not baseless. Something happened to feed this fury, but we’re not told what. Friends and family probably know, but the general reader is left out.
But perhaps we can guess at part of it based on the facts of the case. Hugo describes himself as an old hippy, with enough, and frequently more than enough, drinking and drugging and “dropping out” to back it up. That would be enough to alienate any such son from an ambitious, hard-working, goal-oriented, historically-engaged father such as Henry Lincoln. Such traits also make Hugo fast friends with Rat Scabies, drummer for the punk rock band “The Damned,” when Rat enters the scene and justifies his place in the book’s title. Rat too has an upstanding and upward leading father, John Millar, president of the Saunière Society (often visited and lectured to by Henry Lincoln, Henry and John making a very imposing pair of old lions), and one senses Oedipal struggles in that relationship as well, although Rat has had a very successful career on his own terms and lately Rat seems to have made more peace with his father than Hugo has with his and has gotten more interested in the mythic Rennes-le-Château, becoming, in fact, Rat the Rabid Researcher. Rat also, very usefully, entertainingly, and somewhat ironically, rides shotgun on the fascinating, annual Saunière Society fall bus tours of the Rennes-le-Château region, which is where Hugo ran into him. See his own story in Rat Scabies and the Holy Grail: Can a Punk Rock Legend Find What Monty Python Couldn't?, written by Christopher Dawes.
Hugo Soskin’s story is that of an epic journey that stalled, with very entertaining consequences. Hugo and his wife Jan, childless and in their forties, decided to leave England one fine October and find a plot of land in sunny Spain where they could drop out and “live as self-sufficiently as possible.” Purchasing an old VW Campervan (almost as old as Oedipus!), they toddled on down through France towards Spain, determined to take their time and feel no pressure to get anywhere at any time. Good thing, in light of coming events! But when did this happen? Hugo is as vague and unconcerned about dates as his historically-engaged father is precise and deeply concerned about them, but since they enter that part of southern France round about Rennes-le-Château just after the area has suffered a devastating flood (yes, the flood that destroyed significant “evidence” about “The Mystery”), we can date the Soskin Hegira to 1994, although some of this has the feel of something that occurred later than that. Hugo himself writes in this book that this visit occurred about 25 years after his last visit to the area, in 1975, which would make it closer to 2000, but math is not one of Hugo’s strong suits either. Or is it just that poetic license has telescoped some of what happened over several years into less than one year? [Hugo has written by email to suggest that it was pressure from the publisher that caused the telescoping of ten years into one year, proving that the reign of the Aristotelian unities is far from over.]
Regardless, as our merry but frank, self-deprecating, and often caustic narrator tells the story, it just so happened that, after touring all round the area visiting Cathar and Knights Templar ruins and a brief, disappointing visit to now touristy Rennes-le-Château (largely a quiet, almost deserted village when last visited in 1975, a change which Hugo blames on “The Old Man” and which Henry Lincoln regrets as much as does his son), the Soskins fatefully stopped at a campsite restaurant named Moulin au Roc (mispronounced “Moolong” by its British proprietor), somewhere near RLC but its location unspecified in the book (it’s just east of Quillan; see www.mouli-dal-roc.eu), which had been seriously damaged in the flood, along with the house and several campsite appurtenances and amenities. Over much generously provided food and drink, they become such good buddies with its proprietor, a genial fellow Brit named Chris, who is so obviously having his own mid-life crisis and so obviously in need of help that the Soskins, always by nature responsive to the moment and kindred spirits anyway, couldn’t pass by. They spent several months helping Chris reestablish his restaurant and campsite (although of course room and board and I don’t know what else came with the volunteering), Hugo serving as cook (thus part of the book’s title) and Jan growing food in a nearby field as well as helping out in the kitchen, while Chris tended the bar. Hippies apparently can be hard-working cooks when sufficiently motivated, and Hugo’s long hours of slaving over a hot stove are said to have had much to do with the restaurant’s comeback. When the Soskins departed at the end of the season, again for Spain, they left behind a reasonably thriving restaurant, now become a favorite watering hole of many locals, and with much gratitude from Chris. Did they make it to Spain and realize their hippy dream of self-sufficiency? Hugo does not say in this book, but the book cover lists Gloucestershire as their current place of residence, and the rain in that plain is not the rain in Spain. [Hugo has emailed that they did make it to Spain, where they bought property, but, alas, they later divorced, and Jan is now firmly settled in New Zealand, whilst Hugo has left England once again and is now happily living near Luxor in Egypt, almost within walking distance of King’s Valley, where he seeks to capture the madness of that part of the world in presumably another debunking book.]
Much of this book is devoted to the harum-scarum, make-it-up-as-you-go-along life led by this seemingly inexhaustible group of restaurateurs, who seem to sleep less than they drink, smoke pot, and engage in endlessly hilarious conversations, when they’re not working their butts off. What do they talk about? For one thing, they’re always mopping up after FUF, the Fuck-up Fairy, whom Hugo believes has been his constant companion since birth, and so they talk over all the misadventures and close calls FUF has caused. They’re pranksters as well, love a bit of good theater of that sort, and enjoy talking in a jokey, street-slangy sort of way, mostly about the oddballs they encounter, but a bit of sarcastic marital byplay among the Soskins entertains as well (but see the note above about the divorce!). Mind you that this is mostly in deadpan Brit-speak written for cognoscenti, so those not in the know have to gloss some of the vocabulary for themselves (“punters” are apparently customers, for example, but perhaps a little clueless as well) and resign ourselves to hearing that our heroes are always trying to “sort things out” or “work out” what 2 and 2 add up to. The book mercifully ends just as that lingo, so fresh-sounding and laughter-inducing most of the way, is beginning to be tiresome.
Not all the comedy is in the narrator’s inimitable way of expressing himself; much is in the action, from slapstick derring do to high comedy of no manners. One constantly amusing motif, and central to the book’s point, is the expectation of many they encounter, especially “Rennies,” that the son of Henry Lincoln will be privy to all sorts of inside information about “The Mystery of Rennes-le-Château,” and so there’s a lot of dodging on Hugo’s part that is sometimes positively athletic. Hugo sums it up on p. 13: “Why will nobody listen to me when I say I don’t give a tinker’s cuss about Saunière, Rennes and the Priory of Sion?” By page 315, we know why.
Hugo is especially annoyed by those insistently referring to him as “Monsieur Lincoln,” even after being told repeatedly not to. “Soskin” is the family name, he repeatedly explains; “Lincoln” is only his father’s nom de plume, nothing to do with Hugo. I don’t know for certain, of course, but those wondering why Henry Soskin changed his name to “Lincoln” may have to look no further than the Jewishness of “Soskin,” which he probably didn’t think the bosses and patrons of BBC2, where he was a writer and presenter of documentaries, would care for as much as “Lincoln.” Lincoln Cathedral and all that. No mystery in that name change, then, if Henry was just a product of his unfriendly times. But this identity shuffle is interestingly evocative of all the bloodline speculations involved in “The Mystery,” in which messianic Jewish blood is imagined to flow, secretly, through all the royal houses of Europe and still waits to be acknowledged if not bowed to.
For 90% of the book we’re led to believe that Hugo couldn’t care less about that “Mystery,” and he goes out of his way to back that up with vast displays of ignorance and indifference, punctuated by frequent, irritated insistences that “it’s all rubbish.” But then he blows the whole case in the final chapter when, forced by Chris as a favor to a soon-to-be-departed-from dear friend, he spills the beans. In reviewing “The Mystery” for the benefit of Chris, Hugo reveals a considerable erudition and thoughtfulness that flat out contradicts the notion that he doesn’t give a tinker’s damn about it. He obviously either has read a lot of the Rennes literature or it just insinuated itself into his brain from an obvious, insinuating source, and it saturated his brain to the extent that he can’t help having thought about “The Mystery” a great deal. And he has a plausible explanation for much of it.
So what has Hugo “worked out”? Turns out it’s only his father’s emphasis upon historical connections and all the conspiracy theories developed from that that Hugo objects to. He thinks the factual foundation of the grand edifice of his father’s theories, endlessly added to and amended by others, was accidentally built up as a series of scam artists overshot the mark when they improvised whatever they needed to get what they wanted—a roof over her head in the case of the impoverished Marie Dénarnaud, a buyout in the case of the disappointed Noël Corbu, and a royal title in the case of Pierre Plantard and his Priory of Sion. Things just got out of hand at each step, as the stories invented by the scammers for their own narrow ends were expanded in significance a hundredfold by the Rennie dreamers who filled in the blanks with their own wish-fulfillment, connecting what was never meant to be connected.
But what about Saunière? Hugo thinks the priest, as recruited by mentor and fellow priest Boudet from next door Rennes-les-Bains, was even more devoted a monarchist in private than he was in public but learned from his early punishment on this score to keep his monarchist passions to himself, while allowing plotters and schemers for a monarchist restoration to use his isolated, mountaintop post for their secret headquarters, all of which redounded to his considerable material benefit. For Hugo, Saunière was just a small cog in a large (perhaps Habsburgian) machine that could afford to pay him handsomely for services rendered. When Marie years later embellished the Saunière story in a way calculated to draw in the greedy but romantic-minded and mystery-loving Corbu, who embellished it further for his own purposes, we were soon on our merry way to what Hugo thinks is the monstrous fabrication of “The Mystery of Rennes-le-Château.” And Henry Lincoln’s eventual decision to deepen “the Mystery” by finding octagonal patterns among the layouts of the area’s churches that suggest that Saunière’s playground was a “Holy Land” for millennia before on a grand scale Hugo treats as just a way for Henry and the Rennies to escape the need to prove their original case by moving “The Mystery” from one level of history to a much deeper and even less verifiable level.
Well argued, but there are many elements of this “Mystery” that Hugo, keeping it simple, doesn’t bother with, and there are several contradictions between his arguments and what seem to be the facts of the case. One contradiction is between Hugo’s notion that Saunière set up RLC as a secret headquarters for monarchists and the fact that Saunière deliberately called attention to the place through his rather gaudy building projects, which other researchers have speculated may have been intended as elements in the building of another Lourdes and which has certainly drawn the tourists since. Another contradiction is between Hugo’s idea that the monarchists lost interest in RLC after World War I because that war brought to an end any real hope of restoring the monarchy and the fact that Pierre Plantard and his Priory of Sion seemed very much to be monarchists, at least in their own behalf, into the 1960s and 1970s, apparently because they thought a fragmented, post-war Europe cried out for a United States of Europe ruled by a descendant of Jesus and King Merovée (founder of the Merovingian dynasty). Current authority figures having lost all legitimacy, Henry Lincoln speculated that we need to look elsewhere and deeper in history for that legitimacy.
But perhaps the key contradiction arises from Hugo’s understanding of who is interested in this “Mystery.” At one point he identifies “Rennies” as God-hungry fools who are desperately trying to fill “The Void” of the modern post-war world with desperately-need “authority,” divinely sanctioned, as primarily supplied by the bloodline theory that implies that Jesus is still with us, which Hugo as atheist doesn’t see the need for. But when, looking for a third part to his title, “The Cook, The Rat, and The______,” he fills in the blank by labeling his father a “heretic,” he invites the realization that many of the Lincoln-inspired Rennies are indeed heretics, who want no more to do with the God Hugo doesn’t believe in than he does. Lincoln’s implicit argument in Holy Blood, Holy Grail is that you can be God-hungry without being a fool about it, that you can acknowledge the need for a United States of Europe, say, and even the need for leaders who would lead the nations toward that end who might succeed better if “hallowed” by history in some way, without falling for the next fascism or acceding to the discredited claim of holiness proffered by the Church.
Then, too, the Rennies may be “believers,” but they’re very mixed in what they believe, and chief amongst them are the believers in disbelief, with his father leading the way by presenting us with a Saunière who was very short of being orthodox in whatever he was up to. Hugo acknowledges that realization with his last-minute salute to the Rennies “as twenty-first century heretics that, if they’d been around a few hundred years ago, would have been burnt at the sake for their non-conformist ideas.” Of course that was one of the central points of Henry Lincoln’s books. The Rennies in spirit were around hundreds of years ago and they were burnt at the stake! And many of today’s Rennies come to mourn their spiritual ancestors and try to make right what is historically wrong.
So why is Hugo Soskin so angry with Henry Lincoln? Hugo’s list of scammers – Marie, Corbu, Plantard – ends rather shockingly with Henry Lincoln, who wants immortality out of his scam. If we grant that pyramids are the ultimate symbol of immortality-lust, Hugo is implying that his father’s books amount to a pyramid scheme, with all the modern commercial implications of that along with immortality-lust. Henry Lincoln a Bernie Madoff of modern heresy? Well, Hugo knows he’s gone too far, because he ends the book with a series of cop-outs, summed up by: “I sure as hell ain’t saying that all the research has been a waste of time and effort.” Too little, too late, for we’ve already witnessed a public scorching of his father, however amusingly put. Based on this book, Hugo seems not ready to talk about what personal anger fuelled that, but in the meantime he certainly builds a good bonfire. And like any good writer he’s “immortalized” himself in the process.
R. F. Dietrich