The other day, while shopping in Tesco, I was surprised to find copies of the Inferno for sale by the checkout. ‘Oh dear’, I declared, ‘who would have thought of finding Dante here?’ It was not Dante of course, but Dan ‘Dante’ Brown, whose latest extravaganza, Inferno, tips a nod to the Florentine poet’s medieval epic of fire and brimstone.
Inferno, a bibliographic thriller in the Umberto Eco mould, is the fastest-selling novel of the moment. But let us be clear. Where Dante’s Inferno was ‘awful’ in that archaic sense of the word (still valid in Italian) of inspiring awe, Brown’s is merely awful. Correction: very awful. ‘A powerfully built woman effortlessly unstraddled her BMW motorcycle and advanced with the intensity of a panther stalking its prey.’ (And so on, I regret to say.)
As in The Da Vinci Code, Brown’s sleuth-hero Robert Landgon is lost in a labyrinth of symbols and codes which scream out for his exegesis. The letter ‘R’ on that medieval Florentine parchment: what can it mean? A dastardly plot is afoot to blow up Florence (or perhaps the entire world). If Professor Langdon is unable to decipher those clues in time, what then?
Before Dan Brown, Matthew Pearl wrote a much better Inferno-inspired whodunit, The Dante Club, set in 19th-century Boston. If Dante speaks to our present condition, it is not because we fear damnation (as Pearl was quick to point out) but because Dante wrote the epic of Everyman who sets out in search of salvation. Reading Brown is a hellpit torment all right.