Hilary McElwaine's bold new adaptation of Dante's Inferno plays with the modern versions of sin

Hilary McElwaine brings forth a modern-day interpretation of Dante's Inferno. Picture: Shutterstock
Hilary McElwaine brings forth a modern-day interpretation of Dante's Inferno. Picture: Shutterstock
  • Hell Unearthed: A Modern Adaptation of Dante's Inferno, by Hilary McElwaine. The Choir Press, $18.

Does hell exist? Even in the Vatican there are those who believe it exists but is empty, as testified by a fresco in one of its rooms. In "Imagine", John Lennon went one step further, with neither heaven above nor hell below.

However Hilary McElwaine sees the need now for hell to accommodate those whose actions deserve it. An Oxford graduate of Italian studies celebrating the 700th anniversary of Dante's death in 1321, she accepts his hell and provides a graphic description of its complex structure with nine gyres, or circles, which descend towards the centre of the earth, towards a frozen lake.

Each new location is described in the first person - that of Dante, but using prose rather than verse as did Dante in the original version.

As Dante and his faithful guide, the poet Virgil, retrace the itinerary of The Divine Comedy, there is an extraordinary range of characters who are mainly our contemporaries or near-contemporaries: Al Capone, Bernie Madoff and Clyde Ponzi , David Bowie, Anthony Stanley Braire (who was accused of kidnappings in South Australia in 1966), Bonny & Clyde, Diego Maradona, the art forger Hans van Meegeren, Horation Nelson, Iceberg Slim, Jay Gatsby (fictional characters are allowed, with ample space devoted to Arsene Lupin), Jimmy Savile, John Paul Getty III, Myra Hindley, gluttonous William Makepeace Thackeray, and so on.

Whereas Dante populated Hell with classical and mythical figures or people he knew, McElwaine uses as exemplars any dastard between Dante's time and ours. This scattershot method regarding seven centuries reduces the impact. Dante sometimes clashed physically with the denizens and sought revenge, for instance on his archenemy Pope Boniface VIII. His relationship with the denizens was personal.

McElwaine is more distant; most of her hell-dwellers have been condemned in a civil court for a crime. She gives basic objective information about their misdeeds, whereas Dante usually assessed the hell-dwellers' sins although attributing the judgement to God..

A fundamental difference is that the McElwaine visitor to hell does not undergo Dante's gradual liberation from lust,greed and the search for honours which had previously entrapped him. He is in hell to learn, whereas the McElwaine visitor is there to teach. She wants to lock up wrongdoers, mainly already condemned by civil courts.

I would like to have seen some more controversial verdicts, such as condemnation for a journalist who knowingly uses fake news to spice up his or her articles. Or hell not just for obvious cases such as Adolf Hitler and Osama Bin Laden, but for controversial figures such as Jack Lang or the Italian parliamentarian Guilio Andreotti. In Midnight in Sicily, Peter Robb presented Andreotti as colluding with the Mafia, but for others he was victim of a politically-rigged trial. Or Bernardo Bertolucci, for springing by surprise the anal sex scene, which Maria Schneider found "humiliating", in Last Tango in Paris. Perhaps McElwaine's most controversial political condemnation is of President Mitterand, who is in hell "paying for his infidelities, for associating with the Vichy Nazi collaborators and for using public funds to build huge monuments in his name".

The use of some as exemplars raises queries. McElwaine admires Diana, Princess of Wales, but has her in hell because of marital infidelities. But even from the account provided here, Diana seems more sinnned against than sinning.

Elizabth Taylor is consigned to hell for eight marriages, twice to Richard Burton, but she seems more guilty of repeating compulsive errors than anything else. McElwaine is issuing the final verdicts, and it seems she is giving too much weight to sexual misbehaviour

This ignores Dante's classification of sins, with the least deplorable those of the flesh, and, as the worst the cold, calculating sins such as fraud, deception and betrayal, which misuse God-given reason.

Nevertheless, the latter part of the hell itinerary McElwaine does well, highlighting not just individual criminals, but criminal groups such as groomers of children for sexual abuse, paedophiles, money launderers and human traffickers. This creates some problems imagining the reactions of the faithful guideVirgil, but enables her to map not just hell but malignant contemporary forces. In timely fashion, she uses a fictional (or semi-fictional) character to denounce misappropriation of Haiti earthquake relief funds. Her book could inspire an extension of hell to accommodate those richly worthy of it.

  • Hilary McElwaine is an author, fund manager, teacher and mayoral campaigner, and lives in the UK. Hell Unearthed: A Modern Adaption of Dante's Inferno is out September 1.
  • Desmond O' Grady's most recent novel is "The Diviner Comedy" in which Dante Alighieri returns from the afterlife to live with an Australian journalist in Rome.
This story A hell containing so many people first appeared on The Canberra Times.