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[829] Inferno – Dan Brown


“The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.” (Ch.38, 211)

Inferno is typical Dan Brown and Da Vinci Code all over again: somewhat repetitive plot line, famous antiquity-rich cities, hidden, cryptic messages and riddles, scavenger hunt with a fast pace. But all that said, it’s worth a read because Dante’s nightmare vision becomes the book’s visual correlative for what its scientific calculations suggest.

Inferno opens with Robert Langdon being in dulled wits. The professor of symbology awakens in a Florentine hospital disoriented and with no recollection of the past few days, including the origin of a sealed biotube hidden in the seams of his tweed jacket. It’s a carved cylinder (a Faraday conductor) showing Botticelli’s Map of Hell as depicted in Dante’s Inferno, but altered. The levels of Dante’s inferno has been scrambled, and that, when they are replaced in the proper sequence, yields a message embedded in a mural by Vasari in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. But the shaking opening turns out to be one of the many tricks jampacked in the book, along with his female partner in adventure, Dr. Sienna Brooks, who is not what she says she is.

From there Langdon runs up against macabre symbols of biohazard, plagues, imagery of Dante’s hell, and poems imitated in Dante’s style. It’s soon revealed that Langdon on a global chase to save the human race following a trail of clues about Dante left behind by the plotter, who adopts an extreme but unethical view about the world. So Langdon is not dealing with downright villainy, but sinister cultism of some sort, the dark scheming that involves curbing overpopulation.

The riddles are intriguing and the twists relentless. Alliance changes and reverse about midway through the book, throwing reader on the edge. Wisely, Brown does not let himself get hog-tied by the sequence of events in Dante’s poem, but still able to draw imagery and allusions from the work whenever he feels that he needs them. Everything that refers to something else generates more codes and symbols and messages. The book is a constant thrill and confirms that Brown is a plot-maker (but only that). It’s a good story combining science and history.

611 pp. Anchor Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Approach to The Divine Comedy

While I was taken up with my reading at the sunny-side corner of Book Bay Fort Mason, with George at my feet gnawing at his Himalayan yak-cheese bone, one of the volunteer shopkeepers, a retired librarian, drew his attention to my The Divine Comedy. He enlightened me with a suggestion to read more about Dante Alighieri as I move on to Purgatory. The autobiographical information does come in handy to understand Canto 10, in which Dante, in Circle 6 of Hell, meets Farinata degli Uberti (d. 1264), who led the Ghibelline faction which defeated the Guelphs in 1248 and 1260. Both times the Guelphs returned to power a few years later. Obviously Dante and Farinata adopt opposing political view despite their politeness.

Religious references don’t give me pause reading Inferno–political figures do. The work after all is a depiction of the nature of damnation from the medieval Christian point of view. Politics is not my métier, let alone political history of Dante’s time. The retired librarian’s suggestion can’t come at a more perfect timing. Dante’s life is just as disordered as his era; but The Divine Comedy is the most ordered long poem in existence. So far (I’m on Canto 14, where there is brief allusion to homosexuality) there has been some references to his native Florence, where during his lifetime was divided by factional strife. In Canto 9, souls who were once heretics have power to see the near future. As a government official and propagandist, when his party lost power, he was banished. Indeed when confronted by the heretics in Hell, he is concerned with his exile.

The beginning of the book can be daunting, if not impenetrable. Knowledge of philosophical thinking of Aquinas and system of virtues and vices designated by Aristotle mandate the understanding of Dante’s poem. The constant use of allegory and symbols doesn’t make it easier. But I figure out my own system to approach The Divine Comedy: to read a canto without paying any attention to the notes that explain the major references, usually political figures with whom Dante’s life is interwoven. I would read five cantos heedless of the notes and re-read, using the references. So far I understand enough to make the reading worth my effort, and most importantly, I have fun going through Hell.

Descending into Hell

It’s so true that one book can lead to another. After finishing Wolf Hall, I’m not only left with a craving for a sequel (which Hilary Mantel promises to deliver), but also a curiosity to explore more of hell. So deeply registered in my mind is this:

She would look out for my old master [Wolsey], on one of her excursions to Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, and I offered to pay her traveling expenses on the occasion.

In college, I was a Classics minor. I read the abridged Divine Comedy with selected cantos in each of the three books. I have long been meaning to read the full text—until calling of this quote in Wolf Hall, and the mustering up of courage after As I Lay Dying.

In the Inferno, Dante wanders aimlessly through a forest feeling like a beaten man. Eventually, he comes across the ghost of the Roman poet Virgil (which is another reason I want to read this book); the two men then embark on a journey taking them through the nine circles of Hell. Never has Hell been so vividly captured in literature as it was by Dante. He detailed each circle in an attempt to distinguish each one from the other. As the men began to traverse deeper and deeper into the depths of Hell, the individuals which they encountered continued to get worse.

I will be reading the single-volume Oxford World’s Classics edition of Divine Comedy, translated by C.H. Sisson, for the plain, and highly readable English text. Would you join me on a trip to Hell and back?