«Those who sow with tears
will reap with songs of joy».
What does the fifth verse of Psalm 125 mean? Is it a statement or an indication of an inescapable itinerary? Is there not joy without tears? A quote by Jesus in the Gospel of John (12, 24) elaborates the topic and points out what has to happen for the harvesting to happen after the sowing:
«Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds».
Without death there is not any fruit, thus neither harvesting nor rejoicing. Now the path is clearer, there is a direction: it starts from what is assumed as evil and ends with what is considered good.
Inferno is the novel by Dan Brown inspired by the first ‘Cantica’ of the Divina Commedia by Dante Alighieri. However, who did expect to read about a book full of devils and sinners, flames and boiling pitch, «voci alte e fioche, e suon di man con elle», would be mistaken. Dante’s hell adorns Brown’s plot not as a scenario of an analogous itinerary but as the first trip leg of the Florentine poet’s towards God. Dante, who ended in the ‘dark forest’, could eventually ‘see the stars again’ and reach the ‘brightness’ of ‘eternal light’ only going through the hell, the gloomy and grievous place of wretches. His path ran from the greatest evil to the highest goodness. «The path to paradise passes directly through hell. Dante taught us that». Does this mean that no one can reach the former without the latter?
Most part of Inferno’s plot takes place in Florence, at Palazzo Vecchio. Yet, on the background the pointed bell tower of the Badia stands out. It’s the place of the prologue and of the event looming on the whole novel: a suicide, which is meant as a seal of hell, of liberation, of future. Soon a path begins, and its sense, rather than its form, overlaps with Dante’s journey.
THE TRUTH CAN BE GLIMPSED ONLY THROUGH THE EYES OF DEATH.
Inferno is another adventure of the American professor Robert Langdon, who this time is less lucid and less protagonist than the previous events. The topic is the necessity of evil. Suddenly a question arises: if the evil is necessary, what is the good left with?
The debates between orthodoxes and heretics in the beginning of Christianity provided a huge amount of argumentations on this issue, that have been proposed again later in the Middle Ages proliferating of heretic movements. Nonetheless, beyond the suggestions of an always stimulating past, the central question of Dan Brown’s novel is more about what the evil and the good are, not in a theoretical but practical sense.
What is the evil and what is the good today, in the present time of the contemporary humankind? In this respect, Inferno deserves attention.
«Per me si va nella città dolente,
per me si va ne l’etterno dolore,
per me si va tra la perduta gente».
One slowly enters the plot created by Brown. Robert Langdon finds himself in the «selva oscura» of an event and a vision, which are extremely intricate. What is leading is not the language, such as a refined prose, but the facts narrated without any frippery. Sometimes it seems that the narration slows down, stops on lesser aspects and then gets lost in blind alleys. Actually, this is because some novel’s passages are meant to give the sensation of a slow going, but only to make the subsequent change and speedup more effective.
In Inferno everything is foreseen, yet one vivaciously proceeds from surprise to surprise. Only eventually, at the end, the overall view clarifies everything. Brown is more a scriptwriter then a literary man. He’s a contemporary man who narrates through sequences of images and suggestions, described by a bare and rapid prose. There is not language refinement nor richness as the language used is different. Expecting otherwise would be like demanding some detailed realism from an impressionist.
Represented by pieces
of tangled up and regretful humanity, the population of Dante’s hell is the perspective that triggered the action whose facts narrated by Brown are consequences. The Middle Ages enter the plot, as the moment of one of the greatest tragedies the humanity underwent in the history: the Black Plague. In the middle of 14th century the terrible epidemic spread in Europe and killed one third of the population, millions of people in a few years. In the medical treatises the extreme and urgent advice was: «Cito, longe fugeas et tarde redeas», i.e. «Cito longe tarde».1 In three words there is the tragic echo of dread of men urged to run away from the lethal contagion. The escape was the only relief. «Be quick! Go far away and come back late», «Quick, far, late». The souls «lasse e nude» of Dante’s hell seem to have announced the massive death of some years later.
What followed the Black Death?
We all know the answer.
The Renaissance … Death is followed by birth
It has always been this way.
Death is followed by birth. To reach paradise, man must pass through inferno».
The dilemma comes back. Is the evil necessary? Is the evil the door of the good?
The real protagonist of Inferno is Bertrand Zobrist, the green-eyed man who in the prologue kills himself jumping from the bell tower of the Florentine Badia. He dies immediately in the beginning but his presence stays until the epilogue with a terrible lucidity, the same lucidity he used for his last action. He is an expert of biomedical engineering, he is rich and very educated, obsessed with the enormous growth of the world’s population. The attempt to foil his meticulous plan engages Robert Langdon and the other novel’s characters.
«Ozone depletion, lack of water, and pollution are not the disease-they are the symptoms. The disease is overpopulation. And unless we face world population head-on, we are doing nothing more than sticking a band-aid on a fast-growing cancerous tumor», says Zobrist.
Everything seems to lead to think that the witty and visionary geneticist is the bad one. But in Brown’s novel the boundary between the evil people and the good ones is vague, and sometimes variable, exactly like the indication of good and evil, and exchanging their nature is the core of the novel. The underlying question of the whole story is what is the good and what is the evil for the mankind nowadays? The best way to represent this question in the novel is showing the presumed good people as not truthfully good and, vice versa, the alleged evil ones as not really wicked. The power of Inferno is the doubt that sneaks in the readers’ mind page by page.
I perceive in that the distant echo of trembling thoughts of an elder monk, image of the literary Middle Ages, which is plausible as well as fantastic, who’d say «videmus nunc per speculum et in aenigmitate e la verità, prima che faccia a faccia, si manifesta a tratti (ahi, quanto illeggibili) nell’errore del mondo, così che dobbiamo compitarne i fedeli segnacoli, anche là dove ci appaiono oscuri e quasi intessuti di una volontà del tutto intesa al male».2
IN THIS PLACE, ON THIS DATE,
THE WORLD WAS CHANGED FOREVER.
Elizabeth Sinskey, the president of the World Health Organization, the beautiful grey-haired woman, stands against Bertrand Zobrist, in a dramatic opposition. Sinskey is sterile, due to a medicine she took when she was a child. The event would have stayed in a scientific, medical, and genetic field, if Zobrist did not harbor passion for the history and, especially, for Dante Alighieri and his Commedia. This characteristic of the rich and powerful geneticist triggered professor Robert Langdon’s involvement.
By a series of enigmas, Zobrist had hidden the place where his action accomplishes, and a knowledge of Dante, the Commedia and the Middle Ages is needed to resolve those puzzles. The search goes on through signs, such as the modified Mappa dell’inferno dantesco by Botticelli, the fresco by Giorgio Vasari at Salone dei Cinquecento in Palazzo Vecchio (called Battaglia di Marciano in val di Chiana) where a mysterious writing appears, «CERCA TROVA», and Dante’s death mask. Finally, some verses, not in rhyme, written by Zobrist, forming a spiral shape. They begin with a tercet by Dante (Inferno IX 61-63) and proceed with the indication of further signs to interpret in order to find the place where «the world was changed forever». The fact that the verses by Zobrist do not rhyme represents a lapse of style of Inferno, that Dan Brown, even the ‘impressionist’ Brown as I said above, should have avoided. If there are supposed to be verses in a novel full of Dante, then they must be tercets in ‘rima incatenata’, otherwise they should not be there at all.
The visionary and ‘dantemaniac’ geneticist, obsessed with the growth of the world’s population, has created a viral vector that, departing from a certain place, at a certain moment will have spread all over the planet. Robert Langdon has to help Elizabeth Sinskey prevent that from happening. By his side there is a young woman, whose charm is not the same as Sophie Neveu’s. Now the historian is alone. The story’s action, which was started in Florence, moves, enigma by enigma, firstly to Venice and then to Istanbul, following the Fourth Crusade and the past glory of Constantinople. The novel ends with an airplane that brings Langdon back home, to the US. The
professor, during the flight, gazes out through the window before falling asleep: «the sky had become a glistering tapestry of stars». Dan Brown could not resist the temptation of concluding Inferno with the same word used by Dante as last word of the three Cantica of his Commedia.
«The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who
maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis».
However, the novel’s core is not in the epilogue on the plane, but in some pages before: «I may disagree with Bertrand’s methods, but his assessment of the state of the world is accurate. This planet is facing a serious overpopulation issue. If we manage to neutralize Bertrand’s virus without a viable alternate plan… we are simply back at square one». These are words of Elizabeth Sinskey, the WHO’s director, who is the antagonist of the green-eyed geneticist, suicide victim in the prologue.
In Inferno there are neither Templars nor Graal, but the research essence is still beyond the symbols and their meanings, themselves signifying other things, not less enigmatic. What is the good and the evil nowadays, in the present of the contemporary mankind?
«Or, se le mie parole non son fioche,
se la tua audienza è stata attenta,
se ciò ch’è detto a la mente revoche,
in parte fia la tua voglia contenta,
perché» saprai che dice il romanziere
e come sul male utile argomenta,
mostrando che il bene, sì grande nocchiere,
oltre le troppe ciarle di vane favelle,
sempre dimora in operoso cantiere.
Insomma, non luccicano solo le stelle.
1 F. Vargas’ Pars vite et reviens tard (2001) is woven with the exhortation «Cito longe tarde», in Engl. Leave quickly and do not come back
2 U. Eco, Il nome della rosa, 1980, Prologo