From the earliest Greek and Roman civilisations, people have believed in the idea that hell is an underworld accessible to mortals via special gates on the surface of Earth. It was through these gates that Orpheus travelled to rescue his wife Eurydice and Dante descended through nine concentric circles of suffering in The Inferno.
In Laurent Gaudé’s novella Hell’s Gate, hell is a state of mind as well as a place. It’s the mental torment experienced by Matteo, a Neapolitan taxi driver whose young son is the innocent victim of a gangland shooting. Matteo blames himself. If only he hadn’t harried his child to walk faster when he took him to school that morning. If only he’d listened to the boy’s cries to slow down. If only he’d stopped for a second to tie up his son’s shoe lace. Those seconds would have put his boy Pippo out of danger.
Matteo and his wife Giuliana are consumed by despair at the loss of their son. Matteo’s reacts by driving aimlessly through the darkened city every night, not picking up any passengers, just driving. His wife’s response is to demand revenge to bring ‘some small, fragile solace like a little breath of air on my wounds.” But though Matteo tracks down Cullaccio, the gangland leader responsible for the boy’s death, he cannot bring himself to kill the man. Giuliana leaves their marital home cursing her husband for his weakness and cursing all fathers for failing to protect their sons.
Just when Matteo feels his life has lost all meaning, he encounters the strange Professor Provolone and his revelations that there is a way Matteo can be re-united with his son. It requires him to accept there is an underworld the living can enter and from which they can return. It’s through the Professor’s explanations of the “bridges, intersections, grey areas” connecting the two worlds, that Matteo achieves a degree of peace.
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.
Determined to recover his son he descends into the sulphurous underworld through a gate in the port of Naples. His companion and guide is the unstable priest Mazerotti.
They were on foot, going at the halting rhythm of pilgrims lost in a strange land. They were a tight little group of men feeling their way in the night, like blind men holding each other by the arm or the shoulder so as to not get lost. Or like madmen in a boat gliding silently through the water, wide eyed at a world they did not understand.
The rescue requires priest and father to negotiate multiple obstacles all of which are graphically described. It’s a vision of hell that will be familiar from its many depictions in art, one full of writhing shadowy figures streaming through a diseased landscape. Gaudé’s vision comes complete with giant doors sculpted with “hundreds of faces disfigured by suffering and horror … their toothless mouths forever laughing, dribbling, shrieking with rage and pain”; the Spiral of the Dead, a River of Tears where the dead souls are tossed and beaten as they see their lives pass by and Bleeding Bushes adorned with the scraps of flesh from the souls left in the land of the living.
That the boy is rescued isn’t a surprise because of the structure of the novel. Hell’s Gate actually opens with an adult Pippo hell bent on the revenge his father was unable to execute. It’s 20 years after Matteo’s journey into the underworld. Pippo is now a barista with the uncanny ability to concoct exactly the right blend for each character depending on their mood. Tonight will be his last at the cafe however because he is about to murder his murderer Cullaccio. He approaches his task without fear:
I’ve already been to hell – what could possibly be scarier than that? All I have to ward off are my own nightmares. At night, the blood-curling cries and groans of pain come flooding back. I smell the nauseating stench of sulphur. The forest of souls surrounds me. …. Other people might call them nightmares but they’re wrong. I know what I see is real – I’ve been there.
The book thereafter is organised in chapters that alternate between Pippo’s narrative in 2002 and his father’s in 1980. Taken together they offer an exploration of revenge, guilt and a search for salvation. Regardless of whether you believe in hell, the novel Hell’s Gate is an intense and compelling read that seamlessly weaves fantasy with reality.
The Book: Hell’s Gate by Lauren Gaudé was published by Gallic Books in April 2017. Translation from the French is by Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken. The original French version was published in 2008 as La porte des Enfers.
The Author: Laurent Gaudé was born in Paris in 1972. He is a winner of the Prix Goncourt for two of his novels. La porte des Enfers is his fourth novel. He has also written several plays.
Why I read this book: My copy was provided by the publishers Gallic Books via NetGalley in return for an honest review.