Dan Brown is known for writing entertaining adventure stories centered on his fictional character, Harvard professor of symbology, Robert Langdon. Langdon is drawn as a kind of super-sleuth who uses his knowledge of symbols, particularly religious symbols, to solve earthshaking crimes. Brown’s 2013 book, Inferno, is the fourth in the Langdon series and takes a rather Malthusian look at the world as it intertwines imagery and symbols from Dante Alighieri’s The Inferno in a plot threatening human existence. Although written in 2013, the story has unexpected relevance now as the world takes steps to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
Brown sets the tone immediately after the acknowledgements paraphrasing a John F. Kennedy quote that was inspired by Dante:
“The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.”
Indeed, this theme is carried throughout the story as Langdon rushes against time to solve multiple personal mysteries such as what a small item in his possession means; how he ended up in Florence, Italy; why people were shooting at him; and who he could trust. Eventually as some of the pieces start to come together, he struggles to determine how he could find and stop what he believes is a deadly plague from spreading across the planet.
Brown follows his paraphrased quote with the following disclaimer:
“Fact: All artwork, literature, science, and historical references in this novel are real.
‘The Consortium’ is a private organization with offices in seven countries. Its name has been changed for consideration of security and privacy.
Inferno is the underworld as described in Dante Alighieri’s epic poem The Divine Comedy, which portrays hell as an elaborately structured realm populated by entities known as ‘shades’ – bodiless souls trapped between life and death.”
As is always the case with Langdon adventures, there is a lot of literary and art history along the way, and Brown’s descriptions bring these masterpieces to life allowing readers to visualize them through Langdon’s eyes. Before he centers on Langdon’s plight, Brown offers a recitation from an unknown source with striking references to Dante’s Inferno. It’s not clear who is speaking or to whom, but what is clear is that what is being recited is vitally important. Once properly introduced to this background information, readers then follow Langdon as they spend the rest of the story sorting out the imagery and the intentions of the speaker. This time, Langdon is working at a great disadvantage as he is injured, and his memory isn’t working properly at the outset being cursed with retrograde amnesia. He has no recollection of the past 36 hours, but an eerie vision based on “La Mappa dell’Inferno” haunts him. He imagines, or possibly remembers, snippets of something or someone trying to communicate with him. He has a strong suspicion that he has been sent on a grave task, but he can’t pull together by whom or what he should be seeking.
He finally shakes off his dream state to awake in a hospital in Florence, Italy where he meets a startling ally – Dr. Sienna Brooks. She’s a friendly face who helps him, and then things get a bit unhinged in true mystery fashion. The hallucination recurs, and Brooks tries to help him make sense of it as they embark on a harrowing escape from an attack at the hospital. Safely sequestered at Brooks’ starkly appointed apartment, she shows him a curious item they found in his jacket which only raises more questions. He has no idea what’s inside, or why he has it, but it seems to be key to what happened to him. It soon becomes clear that they aren’t safe at the apartment, and they once again stage an escape that takes them racing from site to site which Brown describes in great detail. Italy provides a wondrous backdrop for the adventure, and a cast of dozens complicate their journey. Langdon has numerous contacts within the art and religious communities in country, and he taps a few of them to try to determine what it is that they are rushing against time to find. Beyond Langdon’s contacts, nefarious actors come onto the scene, but all is not as it appears.
On the run, Langdon and Brooks race to decipher codes and symbols related to Dante’s work to piece together what a brilliant scientific genius obsessed with Armageddon may have created to destroy humanity. The scientist’s Armageddon obsession is matched by his fondness for and knowledge of Dante’s most well-known work. Contemplating what they are afraid he may have done terrifies them, and for readers following this Langdon adventure through the lens of the current coronavirus pandemic, particularly with the recent controversy surrounding the virus’ origin, it is even more intense than it was when it was first published. This book is guaranteed to keep readers furiously turning pages until the final resolution, and even after the last page, there is still much to ponder.
The Divine Comedy (The Inferno, The Purgatorio, and The Paradiso), by Dante Alighieri, translated by John Ciardi