The Underworld doesn’t often make it into the books I read. I used to read Charles Mikolaycak’s exquisite illustrated version of the story of Orpheus and his doomed quest for Eurydice to my students, and of course there is Dante’s Inferno which tells the story of the poet’s journey through Hell, guided by the shade of Virgil. But as Professor Provolone remarks in this novel, the modern world regards such ideas as insane.
Laurent Gaudé’s Hell’s Gate – with its allusion to Dante’s concentric circles of suffering on the cover – is a story of parents driven mad by grief when their eight-year-old only child Pippo is shot dead in the crossfire of a gangland shootout in Naples in 1980. But the story begins in 2002 with an adult Pippo on a vengeful quest. He is a barista par excellence who makes coffee that is just right for however his customers are feeling, but he’s about to abandon his growing fame because he’s going to take his revenge on Toto Cullaccio, the man who shot him and got away with it scot-free. And he’s not afraid of what he’s about to do…
I sip my coffee slowly as the steam rises off it. I’m not afraid. I’ve already been to hell – what could possibly be scarier than that? All I have to fend off are my own nightmares. At night, the bloodcurdling cries and groans of pain come flooding back. I smell the nauseating stench of sulphur. The forest of souls surrounds me. At night, I become a child again, begging the world not to swallow me up. (p.6)
This narrative is interrupted by the story of Pippo’s father Matteo and the dreadful day his son was killed. In one moment the happy family life of Matteo and Giuliana is destroyed. Then the story switches back to the macabre: Pippo deals with Cullaccio and then sets off to deliver a memento of his deed to his father and to the woman he thinks of as his mother, a transvestite prostitute called Grace. We learn later that Pippo has no memory of Giuliana because she decided that the only way she could deal with her grief was never to think of him again.
Although I experienced nothing untoward on my brief transit through Naples in 2005, the city has a reputation for vengeance. It’s said to be how the Mafia keeps control. But in this novel, it’s ordinary people who are overwhelmed by a desire for it. Giuliana demands that Matteo bring back either her son or the man who killed him, and she takes vengeance on what she sees as Matteo’s contemptuous failure by leaving him. (Whereas I, a reader opposed to all forms of retaliatory violence, admired his moral revulsion about taking the life of another man, even one who had so grievously wronged him). Ironically, Pippo grows up to take on the values of the mother who has wiped him from her memory.
Matteo learns to live with his terrible loneliness and guilt. He drives a taxi in the dreary night time streets of Naples, and he finds companionship in a café in the underbelly of the city:
For the first time in a long while Matteo felt happy. He looked at his strange companions: a disgraced professor, a transvestite, a mad priest and the easy-going owner of a café. He wanted to share a meal with these men, to listen to what they had to say, to stay with them in the dim light of the little room, far from the world and its grief.
From here on, the reader has to enter into the world the ancients believed in. The professor is the expert who knows where the portals to Hell are, and the mad priest Mazerotti is a latter-day Virgil who has, (metaphorically speaking), the ‘key’ to the entrance. Pippo (an innocent, after all) turns out to be poised between annihilation and rescue, and as we know from chapter one, the rescue takes place, though not without theatrical plot twists which will come as no surprise to those who know the story of Orpheus and the implacable rules of the Underworld.
Gaudé explores revenge and redemption in this short novel, but I felt uneasy with the accusatory depiction of Giuliana, a woman destroyed by grief who ultimately takes her revenge on another innocent, her own husband. I am not sure what Gaudé was aiming for, when he chose a transvestite to show what a mother’s love ‘should’ be.
PS Is it a new trend to have two translators at work on a book together? Whatever, this is a very smooth translation indeed, and I suspect that most readers would never know it was a translation at all, if they were not told.
Author: Laurent Gaudé
Title: Hell’s Gate
Translated by Jane Aitken and Emily Boyce
Publisher: Gallic Books, 2017
Review copy courtesy of Gallic Books
Available from Fishpond:Hell’s Gate