Let’s be honest: when I received Hell’s Gate from Gallic Books, who are so gracious to send me many novels translated from the French, I warned them I might not read it.
The reason being a few expressions in the synopsis that usually tell me the book is not for me: “supernatural elements”, “relationship between the living and the dead” (I am a Christian, and do believe in such a relationship, but the way novelists treat it is rarely compatible with my faith), and “a way he could bring his son back from the dead.”
On the other hand, the author was Laurent Gaudé, who won the Prix Goncourt for another of his novels, and I have actually never read this author! And I usually do recognize the worth of that French literary award. So I thought I give it a try and go from there.
So I started very hesitantly. So much so that at 50% of the book, I still was not sure I was going to continue! And then something clicked, and oh my!
There’s no other way to see it: the writing is just excellent. With amazing descriptions of places, activities of drama, of grief, solitude, and slow descent into hell (at all kinds of levels).
This is a gem, with passages (starting in chapter 14) that read like a modern retelling of the first book of the Divine Comedy, or come to think about it, maybe the three books actually. You could say this is a dantesque urban fantasy on the connection between heaven and earth with an interesting link to the major earthquake that took place in Italy in 1980.
Without spoilers, I will just say it’s about Matteo, his wife Giulana, and their son Filippo. One day, father and son are caught in a shooting in Naples, and the young boy dies. Grief and anger turn into desire of vengeance in the mother, who pushes her husband either to find the killer or bring her back her son.
The book alternates between the before and after of what Matteo will try to do.
You also have here a wonderful cast of characters who have the most extraordinary conversations and set together on a very special mission: a taxi driver, “a disgraced professor, a transvestite, a mad priest and the easy-going owner of a café”.
The priest Don Mazerotti accepts all for confession, including Grace the transvestite (no explicit content) and hence is threatened by Rome to be expelled from his church. Mazerotti will act as the Virgil (cf. The Divine Comedy) of Matteo. Professor Provolone is convinced there are gates to the afterlife, and that “the two worlds are permeable.”
There’s also a fascinating view of what Christians call the communion of the saints, and of the Christian prayers for the dead, with opposing forces of memory and oblivion.
The dead live. They make us do certain things. They influence our decisions and behavior. They shape us.
The spirits who are still remembered in the land of the living, whose memory is honored, and who are wept for, are luminous.
[Note from Words and Peace: did you know that Orthodox Christians sing: “Memory Eternal” for the deceased? And when someone passes, we say: May his/her memory be eternal!]
And the last paragraph is the perfect ending!
With only 190 pages, this is a gem you have to read. Don’t fear the “supernatural elements” if they are usually outside your reading comfort zone: they are treated in a unique and fascinating way here. So well done.
VERDICT: A dantesque urban fantasy for our time. So well written. Haunting. A gem.
Author: Laurent Gaudé
Translators: Emily Boyce & Jane Aitken
US publication: 4/11/2017
by Gallic Books
La porte des enfers
was first published in France in 2008
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In full compliance with FTC Guidelines,
I received this book free of charge from the publisher.
I was in no way compensated for this post as a reviewer, and the thoughts are my own.