A book review by Jonas Rohe, Queen’s University Belfast
Laurent Gaudé – Hell’s Gate (Translated by Jane Aitken & Emily Boyce), Gallic Books, 04/05/2017. Original title La porte des enfers, 2008.
“Bring Pippo back to me, or, if you can’t, at least bring me the head of the man who killed him” (p. 118)
Taxi driver Matteo De Nittis and his wife Giuliana live an ordinary life in the city of Naples until their 8-year-old son is caught in the crossfire during the feuding of local mobsters. Confronted with the death of their child, the life they once shared is shattered. Giuliana is consumed by the deep anger of a mother who has lost her child and demands that he be returned to her by God, a miracle, or her husband. Matteo meanwhile is traumatised by the death he witnessed and drives aimlessly through the Neapolitan night, riven by grief and sorrow and drifting more and more into a state of mind that is closer to death than life.
Matteo encounters creatures of the night, those who live their lives on the streets of Naples at the edge of society who are “nothing but shadows” in the world of the living. And once he is introduced to a half-mad professor who tells him that this world and the world of the dead are not as far apart from each other as you would assume, Matteo does not hesitate. If there is to be any chance of bringing his son back from the dead, he will take it. He would step through the gates of hell… Twenty years later a man called Fillipo De Nittis is gathering his courage to confront the man who killed him.
If you were to mix Dante, Kafka and Hitchcock and add a bad LSD-trip you would probably get Gaudé’s Hell’s Gate or at least something equally disturbing. Hell’s Gate is a novel about life, death and what is in between, but it is first and foremost a story about loss, grief, and yes, suffering. Gaudé sends his characters through literal hell throughout their mad scramble to remain sane, and the reader has the masochistic pleasure of following their emotional spiral of loss and misery through the pages. The characters are brilliantly written, and it is hard to imagine a more peculiar cast for a story about loss: “He looked at his strange companions: a disgraced professor, a transvestite, a mad priest and the easy-going owner of a café.”
Hell’s Gate shines in its deep understanding of tragedy and the sense of loss and the human desire for salvation. Gaudé effortlessly combines genre elements of crime fiction, magical realism, and fantasy together in an uncanny and thought-provoking pit of a book, that, even though only about 200 pages, is packed with philosophical implications impinging upon the human condition, society and death itself. The language must be praised for its dramatic and vivid imagery as well as a certain stoicism that still manages to convey a sense of compassion. Boyce and Aitkin have outdone themselves in their translation and, thanks to them, Hell’s Gate reads as if it were not a translation at all.
One strong point of the novel is the characters and their journey through pain and misery. In this Gaudé is unrelenting and towards the end of the novel in particular one wishes for even the barest of happy endings, just to relieve the characters of even a fraction of their pain. This is, of course, not forthcoming. Although a glimmer of hope remains at the end of the story, Hell’s Gate is an unremittingly bleak tale and is not for the weak of heart. But if you can endure the pain, then Hell’s Gate will make for an intense and surreal read that seamlessly weaves the reality of human tragedy with the fantastic that will mesmerize.