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BOOK REVIEW / A humanist's holiday in Hell

John Mortimer offers a reader's guide to Dante's Inferno; The Inferno of Dante translated by Robert Pinsky illustrated by Michael Mazur Dent, pounds 20
Dante's Inferno is a 14th- century poem that seems calculated to cause the greatest possible pain to a 20th-century humanist, or to anyone who is attracted to Christianity because of its compassion and belief in the possibility of redemption. The God of the Inferno has precious little compassion and no forgiveness. He was the God who not only turned a blind eye to Belsen, but also exercised great ingenuity in constructing His own blood-chilling concentration camp, where sinners should suffer, not only during their brief lives, but for all eternity.

What is particular about Dante's God is that He consigns sinners to their particular circle in Hell according to an immutable tariff of offences. No attention is paid to mitigating circumstances, or the idea of doing justice to the individual soul before the Divine Court. Hell, in short, was made on exactly the lines that the present Home Secretary would wish to impose on our present sentencing system.

How do we reconcile the enjoyment of a great poem with what must seem, to many of us today, a repellent theology? Our own views may be best captured by Ulysses in his speech to his sailors. He celebrates the dignity of man and says: "You were not born to live as a mere brute does/ But for the pursuit of knowledge and the good". But such sensible humanism is, apparently, no better than the excuses of the gluttons and the adulterers. Ulysses is condemned as a thief and must suffer in Hell.

In an admirable Preface to Robert Pinsky's translation, John Freccero deals with past attempts to enjoy the poem without revulsion. Coleridge advised us to "suspend disbelief" and enjoy the poetry without accepting the theology. Erich Auerbach suggested we separate "Dante's didactic intent from his power of representation", and held that the reality of the condemned characters overwhelmed their allegorical meaning. Perhaps we should simply remember how Dante suffered from the ruthless power-seeking and political intrigue in Florence and take Hell as an accurate picture of politics today.

The Christian God of the early Renaissance is cruel and vindictive, but his victims and the pilgrim visitors are capable of finer emotions. In the fifth Canto, and one of the poem's most beautiful passages, Francesca da Rimini, lover of her brother-in-law, Paolo, is found in the Circle of Incontinence, forever blown like a starling across a stormy sky, denied sleep or rest for ever, thrashed by the wind and calling harsh cries of agony. Francesca tells the poet that she and her lover read about Lancelot and Guinevere, the great illicit lovers, and their eyes met and "they read no more that day".

Dante describes the moment when he hears Francesca's story. He is so overcome with pity for her that he falls down like a dead man. Later he finds his kind old tutor Brunetto Latini tormented among the Sodomites, condemned to burn for a hundred years if he takes a second's rest. "Might I have had my will," Dante says, "You would not have been thrust apart from human life." Perhaps one moral to be drawn from the Inferno is that, when it comes to a comparison between men and gods, mankind usually comes out best.

This extraordinary poem, in which Dante's contemporaries, friends and enemies, together with such legendary and historical figures as Dido, Theseus. Odysseus and Brutus, suffer the ingenious torments of the damned, has been much translated. The main problem has been what to do with Dante's terza rima, an infernally ingenious but musically effective rhyme-scheme which calls for three rhymes repeated in the order ABA BCB CDC DED and so on. Some translators, such as John Sinclair, have avoided the daunting issue and turned the poetry of the Inferno into prose. Shelley translated a passage from the Purgatorio into pretty good terza rima. Dorothy L Sayers, made of sterner stuff, used it in the whole of her verse translation with much success.

Robert Pinsky, a distinguished American poet, in his introduction blames the English language for being poor in rhyme, a proposition with which Byron, WS Gilbert and Cole Porter might not agree. He therefore makes considerable use of poor or "consonantal" rhymes of the sort used so effectively by Yeats and Auden. In my view they don't serve the magnificent sweep and clangour of the Inferno so well; but there are passages of beauty.

The advantages of this book are its illustrations (although I'd rather have Dore's) and the fact that the Italian original is printed on each opposite page. Even with my sketchy knowledge of the language, I can use Pinsky as a crib and enjoy the wonders of terza rima. I'd recommend getting hold of Sayers' version, too; it has a valuable glossary of names. Both translations are compulsively readable, just as the great poem is still calculated to make a humanist's hair stand on end.