Inferno – Dan Brown, Bantam Press, 9780593072493. You know I’m not going to like this. I couldn’t could I? I’ve read ‘The Divine Comedy’ a dozen or so times in approximately eight different translations so I’m bound to get all uppity about the way he treats such a sacred text, aren’t I? Well, actually, yes. This is an annoyingly trite book, so badly under-written it as if all thought of literary quality leached out of the page at the very mention of the name ‘Dante’. There’s a plot, which rips along in a fantastical and furious way and is mildly entertaining. But this is a 460 page novel with over one hundred chapters, which works out at less than 4.5 pages per chapter. That’s not a chapter, it’s a sneeze. Such short chunks of text – doesn’t Brown think we can cope with more than five minutes of sustained writing? No, he evidently doesn’t. He seems to believe that his target audience have neither the wit nor the wherewithal to browse a search engine let alone read a poem.
There is so much wrong with this novel it is hard to know where to start. To put it bluntly the book feels like it is built from the same model as that annoyingly twee TV detective series ‘Morse’. Both are set in academia. Both like to use ‘high’ culture as the hook on which to hang the filigree of their plots. Both have a compulsive need to spell out every bit of cleverness – Morse talking down to Lewis, Robert Langdon reminiscing about triumphant lectures he has given in the past, so that nothing is left for the reader to explore and learn. We are spoon-fed every single detail of how Langdon, Brown’s exceedingly smug professorial crime-buster, progresses from clue A to clue B to clue C and right down to clue Z2.
Then, of course, there is the abuse of Dante. Sadly, I don’t think that anyone reading this book will ever feel inspired to pick up and properly engage with one of the greatest pieces of Western literature. ‘The Divine Comedy’ is treated like a freak show. The depth of its theology is completely bypassed. Dante’s inspiration, Aquinas, doesn’t get a mention. Virgil is glossed over. The passion of the poet’s faith and his incisive summations of character are neglected. ‘Paradise’ is missing, ‘Purgatorio’ a scantily used plot device (which is deeply sad as I would maintain that ‘Purgatorio’ is the key section of the trilogy, the one which gives the greatest inspiration and the greatest hope). Of course, the novel is called ‘Inferno’ and thus it is bound to concentrate on those cantos – caricaturing Dante’s precisely calibrated punishments for the unrepentant as venial nastiness and sour grapes. But again, Brown brings in many, many allusions and links between Langdon’s predicament and Dante’s vision – and this is good – then he goes and spoils every single one by spelling out the connections. There is no space for mystery, for the slowly unfolding layers of meaning that make Dante such a giant amongst poets.
The action moves swiftly around the Mediterranean – Florence, Venice, Istanbul. Three beautiful cities filled with incredible buildings – palaces, galleries, basilicas. Brown catalogues each one with the precision of a tourist guide, but he gives nothing of their atmosphere – they become amorphous crazily exotic ciphers. His listing of the treasures of these wondrous metropolises rapidly becomes as tedious as his compulsion to drop the word ‘chthonic’ into the text as often as possible – and explain its meaning each time.
Overall I cannot get away from feeling that this is a very bad book indeed. And that is a shame for several reasons: because readers deserve better; because Dante deserves better and because the overarching premise of his plot – Malthusian predictions of the collapse of humanity due to the exponentially rising and out of control population – is both sound and desperately in need of becoming a topic for debate and action in every home in the world. In fact here’s the rub – with ‘Inferno’ Dan Brown has given us the Enid Blyton guide to population control. It is a book for people who don’t read – fair enough, we should all do our best to encourage reading, but not by belittling and demeaning the reader, insulting their intelligence and serving them up with prose that has no elegance, beauty or artfulness at all.
‘Inferno’ may have a pretty cover but pass through the portentous portals of its pages and it offers nothing better than nine circles of execrable disappointment.