Larry & Jerry’s Inferno

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InfernoI had forgotten about this book until recently when I came across a reprint. I read it originally in the late 1970s when I was reading a lot more sci-fi than I do today. (Many years ago, I ran a Toronto computer convention where I invited the authors to be the keynote speakers. I got to spend many hours and a memorable dinner with them.) I finished the reprint only a few days ago and started the sequel, Escape From Hell, shortly after.

I was researching Dante of late for something I’ve been slogging at for the past couple of years, when I came across the novel again. I’m always looking for something to sharpen my understanding of Dante, and sometimes a perspective like this can help.

Dante’s Inferno, the first of the Divine Comedy trilogy, has always fascinated me for its complex subject matter; its politics, theology, human drama and vision. I have numerous translations of it on my bookshelves. Some I keep just for the introduction and notes – the poetry is almost unintelligible without a guide (which is amusing; you need a second Virgil to guide you through Dante’s references and make sense of them in modern terms).

Dante is tough, but not for his words. Those are easy to read, but the poems are full of historical and literary references that make little sense to the average (non-academic) modern reader. Some of those references were contemporary to Dante, others are classical. Archaic politics have little resonance today.

He also had a rather ornate, medieval theology that furnished his view of Hell (apparently influenced by the writings of Thomas Aquinas (who I have not read but may some day tackle the 3,500-page Summa Theologica if i can work up the nerve). Without having some background knowledge or at least an edition with good notes, the words themselves often don’t tell you as much as you need to know.

Pinsky’s version was my favourite, although Kirkpatrick’s translation made it a close second last year. I recently started reading Mary Jo Bang’s colloquial version and it so far intrigues me, although it seems to have annoyed some critics for her modern (and not literate) interpretations. I also have the Ciardi, Wordsworth and Musa translations. Musa’s notes are worth the book alone.

Since its first translation into English, in 1782, the Inferno has been the subject of much literary discussion and the merits of each translation heavily debated. Ciardi’s version seems to have garnered the most accolades before Pinsky. I am somewhat iffy about versions that attempt to replicate Dante’s three-line rhyming scheme – it can seem rather strained – and tend to like blank verse versions better.

You can’t really appreciate Niven and Pournelle’s Inferno without some knowledge of the original. Unfamiliarity doesn’t make it any less an adventure, but it does make it confusing and it’s easy to get lost. Not that the two actually put the same sort of detail into their descriptions as Dante did, or follow the same path all the time. But still, it’s useful to know the basic roadmap so you understand what the various regions are intended for.

You really need a visual map of Dante’s vision to understand the inverted wedding-cake physical structure; mere words cannot describe the complex, layered layout well. No journey through this Hell is simple and direct. The map in the novel is barely adequate. Mark Musa’s otherwise excellent version doesn’t even have any maps, but those in Kirkpatrick’s translation excel. Having access to such maps can make a difference because you get a physical sense of the journey.

Inferno was written as a social, political and a theological commentary, much like an informed, well-written political blog might be today (not, of course, the current cyberbullies’ paltry attempts at what they think passes for informed commentary). You don’t get a strong sense of that in the N&P version. You get more of a sense of action, exploration and wonder. It’s an adventure that merely tips the hat to some of the underlying themes in Dante.

It’s okay as a novel, although not their best collaborative work (Mote in God’s Eye was, I think). I prefer Niven as a solo author (the Ringworld series was brilliant), too. But it is fun to see how another writer can play in the sandbox and create a narrative from what Dante left us. I’m actually surprised more authors haven’t worked stories from Dante’s vision, but perhaps it’s both too complex and to constrained for comfortable imagining.

The sequelWhat isn’t addressed in Dante’s original, and is only glossed over in the novelization, is why (although the jacket notes suggest the sequel deals with the question, I haven’t encountered that part yet).

The sequel, by the way, is another story set in the same location (Hell), with some new (and some old) characters, not a continuation in an upwards zone, as Dante did in his book, Purgatory. The N&P novel was published more than 30 years after their Inferno.

Why does Hell exist? It’s a BIG question. What’s the point of an afterlife of unending agony, torture and pain? What sort of god would allow such a place? Does eternal punishment always fit the crime? Especially those crimes that seem like mere slights or misdemeanors today – flattery, sloth, lust, skepticism. Is there no redemption, no forgiveness, no chance to escape?

The “problem of Hell” has sparked many theological debates over the centuries. Not that I can tackle it here. It’s way above my grade level in theological understanding. But I can appreciate the perplexity the question generated and even some of the justifications or rationalizations posed in answer. It’s a fascinating area of study (nerterology), even for someone who does not believe in Hell (or Heaven).

The whole afterlife thing crosses religious and cultural boundaries. Most faiths have some sort of heaven-and-hell in their beliefs and while they share some common characteristics, they also have many unique differences. The concept of Hell certainly has captured the popular imagination, moreso than that of Heaven, I think. It never ceases to bemuse me how the concept grew from sheol – a barely formed notion of a place where the dead wandered – into the sort of frenzied, terrifying vision of eternal damnation that Dante gave us:

The word “hell” occurs 31 times in the Old Testament. All 31 of those times, the word translated “hell” is the Hebrew word “sheol.” While the English word “hell” has connotations as a place of punishment for the condemned, sheol does not have such connotations. Sheol simply refers to the abode of the dead in general, not particularly the place of the punishment for the wicked. In fact, sheol was divided into two compartments, one for the righteous dead and one for the wicked dead. And, more specifically, the Jewish concept of sheol was the “underworld,” or in other words, a place within the earth, underneath the surface world.

In the meantime, I’m a few chapters into the sequel and maybe I’ll find an answer there – albeit from their particular sci-fi-fantasy perspective. I don’t expect to get anything significant in my understanding of Dante from either, merely entertainment. But it did remind me to pick up where I left off before the election campaign in my reading of the original, so I’ve been mulling over some more scholarly book choices online as companions to my continued reading.

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