Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Sandow Birk & Marcus Sanders' "Dante's Inferno": Book Review.

As a native Angeleno, reading about my hometown depicted as hell the week the temperature in my neighborhood hit 118 (the municipal thermometer broke at 113 downtown) made for some poetic justice. The tag of the gang that dominated my neighborhood graces a wall in one of the many illustrations that recall Dore as well as graphic art that Birk's known for, as in his witty SF vs. LA "war"-- it figures SF gets to be Purgatorio by comparison.

I have ten translations of the Inferno, and I like to compare their opening lines to judge the fidelity or flexibility of each version. "About halfway through the course of my pathetic life,/ I woke up and found myself in a stupor in some dark place./ I'm not sure how I ended up there; I guess I had taken a few wrong turns." This shows the casual prose and the matter-of-fact reporting that characterizes the mood of Dante's quest.

Sandow Birk and Marcus Sanders offer a surfer's translation, and while this may feel as dated as, say, the Beats' hip slang in a half century from now if not sooner, it does ring true as the vernacular I hear around me now. The placement of such as Slobodan Milosevic, Jim Bakker (misspelled in the text), and Anna Nicole Smith, as well as Porta Potties, Duraflames, and Fred Flintstone's inflated figure in the subway may lead to puzzled readers soon enough, but for now, pop culture references may hook an audience on the original, many translations graced by excellent renderings often side-by-side with the Italian.

The most harrowing scene for me has always been Canto XXXIII, Count Ugolino having to eat his sons. The simple plaint: "'Why don't you help me, Dad?' were his very last words" combines contemporary tone and eloquent power.

The liberties taken with the text, as with the illustrations, naturally are the reason this version's published, so the carping with the freedoms by some reviewers appears beside the point. Birk and Sanders love their wretched city, show compassion for those trapped here, and give voice to the outraged and the outrages in 1300 or 2000.

Many sections rely on digression to incorporate recent references, and then cut medieval ones, and the summaries before each canto do compress a lot, making likely any reader having to go back to a more comprehensive edition for footnotes and commentary. Brother Michael Meister's accessible introduction does assist us, however, and the illustrated map of Hell is clearly drawn. While this may not be the end of one's Dantean adventure, it may be for some readers put off by more scholarly or fussy texts an ideal enticement to descend into classic terror and enduringly moral, and very Christian and ethical, drama. (Posted to & Amazon US 10-13-10)

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