Dante's towering contribution to the literary world continues to hold a prestigious place almost seven centuries after it was written. The sheer magnitude of imagination and philosophical thought that permeate the narrative requires a lifetime of study and Naxos has done the world a great service with the issue of this mammoth translation in three volumes read by the inimitable Heathcote Williams. The text is punctuated by the at times haunting sounds of medieval music, Gregorian Chant and other similar strains of sound that add immense effect to the proceedings. Obviously in a translation of such scale, Benedict Flynn needed to absorb certain dramatic elements and changing the overall structure of the cantos but at the same time retaining the intrinsic effect of the dramatic pathos. The result is a free flowing storyline that is easily understandable and which also makes use of the rich English vocabulary, although no real match for its flowery Italian counterpart but beautiful nonetheless.
'The Inferno' is obviously the most fertile in imagination, not just for its bewitching and at times horrifying imagination but also for the sheer misery that permeates the souls of the damned. Heathcote Williams is constantly in his element here whether it is weeping the lament of the 'men become trees', the river of horror and the roasting of Perillus, the gargantuan horror effects are never short of surprise. It is difficult to choose a favourite canto from here but it will suffice to say that the whole process of Hell left this listener distinctly wary of the next evening! Memorable events such as the plight and lament of Francesca da Rimini, the final cities of ice and the constantly horrifying tortures of the damned make this 'Inferno' a hard act to follow especially with Williams roaring out the lines like a man possessed. One also marvels at Dante's impressive imagination in describing Lucifer, the true Prince of Darkness, a gigantic figure of morose evil embedded in the freezing centre of Cocytus. Fantastic stuff, then, and truly a great introduction to the journey of Dante and Virgil.
'Purgatory' puts us in a calmer perspective but is still very enticing. Here we meet souls who live in constant hope of seeing God and although their troubles may be great, there is absolutely no comparison with the nether regions of those eternally damned. Rather here a ray of hope flows through each soul but their suffering is indeed impressive as they rue the time spent away from the master with bitter remorse.
Copyright © 2001 by Gerald Fenech