In Dante’s footsteps

A new book chronicles a hi-tech Hell, which is very different from what one finds in the sacred texts, and echoes our times

Charles Patterson’s recently published novel, In Dante’s Footsteps: My Journey to Hell: A Modern Divine Comedy, unfolds at two levels. At one, it is a set of intertwined narratives about the life of a young man, Thomas Aaron Reed III, who becomes a priest, leaves priesthood, journeys to Hell and returns. At another, it is an exploration of human conduct, values, emotions and aspects of morality.

The narratives unfold, smoothly and elegantly, around several themes. One of them is Thomas’s relationship with his parents and another with Father Edward Tyler, who taught him Latin in school and accounted for his deep and abiding interest in Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, became his adviser and conveyed to him the invitation to travel to Hell under a newly-launched visitor’s programme. The third is his reluctant entry into priesthood in deference to the expectations of his family; his father was a clergyman, his maternal grandfather a Bishop and paternal grandfather the dean of a theological seminary. An account of his life as a parish priest in north Connecticut and his departure from there on leave of absence to study theology in New York follows. Next comes the narrative about his life in the Big Apple, renunciation of priesthood and return to lay life as the writer of publicity material for an insurance company. Intermittently throughout, there are references to his relationship with Beatrice, his college girlfriend, who goes off his life and marries someone else, but is re-united with him on his return from Hell.

The most striking subject, of course, is his visit to Hell and back. Thomas does not get to see the “pure” Hell, the terrible place where doers of evil spend their days in suffering, and which is covered in thick mist. His tour is confined to what is called the administrative area, the tech room and the purgatories. There are besides visits to his father, conversations with Edward, meetings with God, referred to as the “Chief” by the spirits administering Hell, and Satan, and his trial by the Crusaders, a bigoted lot to whom almost everybody else is a heretic, and escape therefrom.

Thomas’s description of the parts of Hell he sees is very different from what one finds in the sacred texts of various religions, myths and epics. It is a happening place. A conference of tall eminences from all ages — from Socrates to Karl Marx — was going on during Thomas’s visit. It is computer-age Hell. The Tech Room, the hub of communications within Hell and without, has an array of computers and electronic surveillance and communication equipment, and every visitor has to be “logged-in.” The Crusaders can photograph and record everything happening on earth on video, and have an “electronic sub-verbal monitor that picks up both thoughts and voices.”

There are helicopters (called Beetles) for travel and the Satan appears “wearing jeans, boots, a lavender shirt and a brown felt cowboy hat.” Nor is he the discernibly fork-tongued evil described by the biblical texts. He argues persuasively and says that the difference between him and God is that while he is a realist, God is an idealist. The essence of realism, he holds, lies in the saying, “might is right.” It is might that, while causing wars, crimes and violence, has also triggered the massive material progress that civilisation has made through the exercise of power, which is at the core of might.

Here we are at the heartland of morality which, in turn, is at the core of the other issues the novel explores — human conduct, values, emotions and morality. Can progress justify the wars that have devastated lives and lands, the Holocaust, the sustained subjugation of women and the savage treatment of all non-human living beings throughout the ages? There is doubtless punishment in the hereafter. Child and animal abusers, for example, go to “Pure Hell” “Wall-to-Wall” as do bystanders who watch and do nothing. Nevertheless, the world as it is, is moving more in the direction of material progress rather than frowning upon greed, crime, violence. It is celebrating power and turning its face away from compassion.

In this sense, Satan is right in claiming before Thomas and Rachel, another visitor from earth, that he is winning and God is losing out. God himself recognises this and tells Thomas that he is sad and depressed. He, along with his companion Naomi, has left Heaven, which has become a very lonely place for dearth of people making it and come to live in a cave in the region of the purgatories. Yet, he tells Thomas, he has not given up hope as there are still many good, courageous and caring people doing their best to make the world more just and compassionate.

Compassion is at the heart of Patterson’s concerns and an important part of it encompasses all non-human living beings. This has been most tellingly underlined in his landmark work Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and The Holocausts. It is very clearly manifest in the book under review. To cite just one example, on a hoarding in the purgatories is written, “As long as men kill animals, they will kill each other.”. Rarely have truer words been written.

(The writer is Consultant Editor, The Pioneer, and an author)