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[55] The Dante Club – Matthew Pearl

In 1865, the poets James Russell Lowell and Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the historian George Washington Greene, and the publisher James T. Fields collaborated Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to complete the country’s first full-length translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Although prior to this translation club American intellectuals showed familiarity with Dante, the general public had remained more or less unexposed to his poetry. This novel is written against such historical backdrop. In its portrayed interpretations of Dante, the novel attempts to remain historically faithful to its featured figures and their contemporaries rather than to our own accustomed readings.

A series of murders, the victims of which were society’s most respected and elite, jolted the Bostonian public and rendered the city into a panic mode. Only the expertise group of American scholars, who contrive to deduce from Dante’s cantos, can solve the mystery, because the murders had been inspired by Dante’s Inferno. Gruesome killings have punctiliously emulated entrails of Dante’s punishment and the scholars were awestruck at how each crime happened directly before their club translated the canto on which the murder had been based.

These scholars found themselves in a dilemma as to solve the mystery of the crimes at the expense of forfeiting Dante’s reputation, especially when the prospect of Dante was already at stake as in general works of classics had long been pummeled of meaning. Inferno did not necessarily help the decline, and in fact for worse, the Dante-derived violence tainted the poet with blood and apropos justified the notoriety that his work being hatred against the human race, exultation and merriment at eternal and immitigatable sufferings. The killer at large had captured the gist of the cruelty of punishment: perfection came with a contrapasso in which punishments would match the sin of every man. The killer also ensured that his victims would experience a length of suffering and an imprisonment of sensation before death.

It is upon this distinct sense that somehow the Dante Club had been responsible for decimating ideas of punishment into the air of Boston that the novel lays its groundwork. The scholars’ genius and unswerving faith to Dante’s poetry has lent a hand to murder. Not only does the novel do justice of Dante’s inspiration of his vision of Hell and his search for redemption, it also affords a glimpse to the new home in the future that Dante spoke in 1302 (date of his exile). When he spoke of the other places h was seeking, he spoke not of his life but of his second life–his life as he would live on through the poem for hundreds of years. At the time of his frantic quest, he fell victim to a faction between the parties of his sullied city (Florence) and had been commanded to journey through the afterlife so that he might put all mankind right. Therefore, from the very first line of the poem,

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
(midway through the journey of our life)

we the readers are involved in this journey–we are embarking on the pilgrimage as much as Dante is, and we must face our Hell as squarely as the poet faces his. The novel revitalizes the poem’s significance: its great and lasting value as an autobiography of a human soul.

4 Responses

  1. Sounds like you were pleased with it and I am glad its on my too read pile. Even more happy that I bought the hardback when it first came out as it is a nice quality product and will be a pleasure to read.

  2. I looked at this today at the bookstore for the millionth time. I keep hearing good things…I guess next time it will have to go in the pile.

  3. Reading your review makes me want to give this another go. I tried reading it a while back but couldn’t get into it.

  4. Hello everyone. I’m indeed very pleased with this one although this is not the first time I pick it up to read. It takes a while to get into the narrative – so maybe you want to sit comfortably and have a drink while you’re reading it. 🙂

    It evokes Divine Comedy and I have a penchant for classics so this one is up my alley.

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