If only Henry Wadsworth Longfellow did not find his passion towards Dante Alighieri’s beautiful poem: The Divine Comedy in around 1864, Matthew Pearl would have not written his fantastic historical-thriller which has captured my mind for more than a week. The Dante Club is a group of poets gathered in Longfellow’s home every Wednesday to perfecting the translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Among these people, there are Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. and James Russell Lowell. It is believed that they are the first American who ever brought Dante’s poem to be translated in English. More than a hundred years later, an American novelist, Matthew Pearl, brought this exclusive literary club in his first published historical mystery novel: The Dante Club.
In the end of American Civil War era, a Chief Justice was found dead in a very mysterious way; his body has been eaten alive by thousands of maggots placed in his body, while a kind of flag was found near the body. This mysterious murder was followed soon by another horrifying murder scene of Reverend Talbot, who was buried head-down in a narrow pit while his feet, which were protruding from the ground, were burned out. When Oliver Wendell Holmes, who—besides a poet—is also a physician, observes Talbot’s corpse, he finds a perfect parallel between the murder scene and the punishment in Dante’s Inferno—the first part of The Divine Comedy which tells Dante’s journey to witness sinners being punished in Hell.
At the same time as these murders agitates Boston, the Dante Club is in the middle of translating Dante’s Inferno, which is annoying Harvard Corporation who believes bringing Dante into America would be ruining their reputation. So now the respectable literary men in Dante Club must leave the comfort of their book shelves to chase the murderer, and stop him from killing more people, only depends on their knowledge and passion of the poem.
Reading this book instantly after finishing Dante’s Inferno is proved to be my perfect decision. I could instantly recognize the similarity of the murder scenes and Dante’s contrapasso (punishment that fits the crime—in Inferno); and it was so exciting to match it with my Inferno’s summaries, and to find what kind of sin it punished, and to guess what the victim had done to receive such punishment. But not only that, what delighted me more is to read how those poets are so passionate about Dante’s poem. They can read and delve deep into the poem every Wednesday night, discuss what Dante means by every stanza; and they do it intently and wholeheartedly, just because they find the poem so beautiful and interesting. I don’t think I would ever be such passionately in appreciating any literary work, and I would really like to have leisure time to do that with friends who share my interest.
For a start, Matthew Pearl had done a great job with The Dante Club. It is engaging, thrilling, yet educating and entertaining; while the fast-pace plot and the exotic nineteenth century setting only add the pleasure of reading this book. I am also glad that Pearl picks literary theme for his first three historical novels (besides Dante Club, there are Poe Shadow and Last Dickens), and I truly hope he would continue to work on more respectable classics authors and/or works.
Four and a half stars for The Dante Club, and a bunch of thanks for Astrid who lend me this book! ^__^
*I read Ballantine Books (Random House) paperback edition for:*
4th book for 2013 TBRR Pile Mystery Reading Challenge
14th book for What’s in A Name Challenge 2013