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Dante, dude
The Commedia finds a 21st-century vernacular
BY JEFFREY GANTZ
DANTE’S INFERNODANTE’S PURGATORIODANTE’S PARADISO
Adapted by Sandow Birk + Marcus Sanders | Illustrated by Sandow Birk | Chronicle Books | 240 pages each | $24.95 softcover each


Dear Vinny,

I gotta tell you that the last volume of that surfer Dante thing has come out and it’s really somethin’. You remember that weird Inferno and Purgatorio we heard about last year? Now they’ve done Paradiso. Same two guys. One of ’em, Sandow Birk, is an artist and a surfer, and he did the illustrations, which look like Gustave Doré except when they don’t, if you know what I mean. And he translated the Italian with this other guy, Marcus Sanders, who edits Surfline, except it ain’t exactly a translation, since you know Dante never heard of Eminem.

But Dante’s big thing was writing his Commedia in the vernacular, and that’s what Birk and Sanders do, only they do it in our vernacular, not his. Some people are gonna freak when they see f-bombs bursting all over a Classic of Western Civilization, though I bet Dante’d have done the same if he’d thought he could get away with it. B&S update the list of souls, too; Foucault and Jung and Hemingway and Stephen Hawking are in Limbo now, and they nail Bill Clinton for lust and Hitler and Reagan and both Bushes for violence and the " Boston priests " for sodomy (like they was the only ones!) and Wilt Chamberlain as a seducer and Dionne Warwick as a fortune teller, with her " fraudulent TV show, " and John Walker Lindh and Benedict Arnold as traitors. No Kurt among the suicides, or anywhere else. Elvis and Oprah make it into Purgatory among the gluttons, and Tommy Lee and Hugh Grant among the lustful, but it all seems kinda arbitrary (they probably said that about Dante, too), and you gotta wonder why there’s no one new in Paradise, not even Mother Teresa. Then there’s the way St. Dominic suddenly becomes Pope Dominic in Canto XII of Paradiso, which was news to me and everybody in Rome I bet. And it seems that even in Heaven they don’t get names right anymore, since Charles Martel messes up Dante’s Convivio.

But it’s not like they disrespected the theology, ’cause they had this Franciscan, Brother Michael Meister, give his nihil obstat or whatever. (Maybe he can explain that Pope Dominic thing.) And the shit sings like Tony still does, or like Frankie back in his prime. Right at the beginning of Paradiso, instead of asking Apollo for the power he showed when he outsang Marsyas and then flayed the poor sucker, Dante wants it to be " like when Johnny won the golden fiddle in that Devil Went Down to Georgia country-western song. " Mr. Mathers (you was probably wondering) gets into it in Canto XI of Purgatorio: " Cimabue used to be the hottest painter around, but now Giotto’s the one everybody’s talking about and Cimabue’s laying in the dust. It’s the same way with the poets, too: Guido Cavalcanti has been stealing the limelight from Guido Guinizelli lately, and there’s probably some hot young kid out there already that’ll put his rhymes to shame when he grows up, like Eminem. " It’s genius the way they get the names into the text instead of making you read the Cliffs Notes: all Dante said was Guido and Guido. Though that don’t help when Cacciaguida is goin’ on about the Ughis and the Catellinis and the Filippis and the Ormannis and you wish you had all the helpful shit Anthony Esolen put in his Commedia. Dante was all multiple and multifoliate; this guy is about keepin’ it simple, so things like that whole new concept of time at the beginning of Paradiso Canto XXIX get flushed down the toilet. But like I said, Vinny, it rocks. Dorothy Sayers is still my Beatrice, but she’s gettin’ old. I’m puttin’ her beginning of Paradiso Canto XIX opposite S&B’s at the end of this so you can see for yourself.

I haven’t even mentioned the illustrations, and maybe they’re the best part. There’s 103 of them, one for each Canto and a bonus at the end of each book, and thumbnails for the " Argument " summary that precedes each Canto. They look like b&w engravings, and they got the general composition of the Dorés, but when you see the pigeon flying over the sewer grate at the beginning of Paradiso, you know it’s a whole different city. Three cities, actually: Inferno is in LA, Purgatorio’s in San Francisco, and Paradiso’s in New York. Yeah, LA hell, all strip malls and freeways and auto junkyards and fast food and police helicopters and more fast food. Every panel has Virgil wrapped in something different, from the Stars & Stripes (he did write the Aeneid, so I guess he was pretty patriotic) to " California Republicans " (how did Gray Davis make it into Purgatory?) to " Dodgers " and " Open House " — maybe he’s selling advertising space so he can buy his way out of Limbo. The Minotaur is perched on a Greek fast-food joint; " Greyon " (what happened to Geryon?) is first a helicopter and then an SUV with a tail. It’s pretty multi-ethnic, and that don’t change when we get to San Francisco except there it’s more Asian than Hispanic. The angel in Canto I arrives in the 49 city bus, the snake in VIII is one of those seals from Pier 39, and Guido del Duca and his pals hang out under a KFC bucket.

Then after Dante goes through the flames, everything changes. Virg congratulates him in front of a Garden of Eden peepshow; Matilda is a couple of pole dancers; Faith, Hope, and Charity come on like hookers. And Beatrice turns up in a little black cocktail dress (very little above the waist) and fuck-me heels and surrounded by pigeons. She’s kinda chunky, too — this is the girl for whom Dante wrote " Ladies who have understanding of love " ? Maybe that’s why when he’s supposed to be drinking from the waters of Eunoë we see him chugging a Tecate cerveza from the six-pack he’s carrying.

And Paradise in NYC probably ain’t what you expected — it ain’t the Hamptons or Westchester County or even Central Park, just more grubby alleys and subways and package stores and huddling under the El or in front of the Public Library. Emperor Justinian has a Lincoln Mercury dealership; Charles Martel is a Gulf War veteran who’ll " work for food " ; St. Thomas Aquinas wears kneepants and sneakers and harangues a bummed-out crowd in Washington Square. The Sphere of Jupiter, the one with all the lights, is Times Square; the Eagle of Divine Justice is the big McDonald’s arch; the Sphere of the Fixed Stars is Rockefeller Center; St. Peter is a security guard who greets Dante in front of Grand Central Station. Adam is some Neanderthal (there goes Intelligent Design), and with all the references to Islam and Buddhism, you figure Christianity ain’t the only game in Heaven. When Dante and Beatrice rise to the Primum Mobile, you might think they’d be looking down from the top ring at the Met, but no, they’re on a brownstone fire escape.

And Beatrice don’t get " exponentially more lovely " — she don’t change at all. But when you see how she’s holding her guy’s hand when he’s talking to Peter, maybe that don’t matter. Vinny, I was bummed when I got to the end, to Dante’s vision of God, and found him standing alone in the rain, an umbrella in one hand and a Tecate in the other, in front of the Grand Sichuan restaurant on Canal Street. Then I got to thinking about the Incarnation and Creation, and I figured maybe Birk and Sanders are telling us that Heaven ain’t as far away as we thought.


Issue Date: September 2 - 8, 2005
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