I can imagine dozens of Alan Moore buffs stumbling on this review, and grudgingly leaving the page as soon as they realise that it’s about a novel written by relatively unknown to the English reader Italian writer Giorgio Manganelli, not the psychogeographic exploration of the Victorian London and a paean to the mythology around Jack the Ripper. What can I say to these disappointed readers? Wait a little bit! If you are interested in Alan Moore’s From Hell, chances are you may take to this little novel too. By the way, in contrast to its English namesake, this book is actually set in hell. Without avoiding the inevitable nods to Dante’s Inferno, Manganelli’s work is an original and vivid description of a very personal version of hell. It is not an overpopulated canvas, but rather a miniature, which does not render the horrors depicted by Manganelli less spine-chilling than those immortalised by the great Florentine.
After death, the narrator finds himself in a place he believes to be hell. It’s a disorienting environment engulfed by fog in which things are usually not what they seem. He is met by somebody called the charlatan, whose role appears to oscillate between that of a respectful guide not unlike Dante’s Virgil and a sadistic demon right out of Pandemonium. The charlatan inserts a carnivorous doll into the stomach of the man, and since that moment the odyssey of this dead soul commences. What follows is a series of ceremonies and transformations interspersed by absurd dialogues. Actually, there is more of Samuel Beckett and Lewis Carroll in the infernal universe depicted by Manganelli than of Dante. Most of the characters are a weird lot that can’t stop wondering about the impossibility of making sense of their spectral existence, of time and space in hell and their experience thereof. The first ceremony is a game of dice between the narrator and the bizarre infernal denizens that seem to have stepped out of some lurid version of Wonderland:
I am sitting at the dice table, and around me there is a cat, a seal, a clock, and a chequered flag, a bit ruined; an experienced flag. We play: the minuscule dice fly and the doll gives me advice and pushes me. Make a bet now; now be careful. I lose hands and legs that get piled up in the corner; then I win them back, lose an eye, then an ear, then I start to win: the whiskers of the seal, the tail of the cat, all the odd numbers of the clock.
The main goal of the game is to lose. This ceremony is followed by another called “the pursuit of oneself”. The narrator gets involved in a wild chase of various malformed shadows, one of which is presumably himself. Undoubtedly, the self is one of the main motifs of the novel: how it is perceived by us and others, who and what we identify ourselves with. As the narrative becomes more confusing and unpredictable, different transformations of the main character occur. To mention just some: he turns into a moon, a city, a nose, a big toe, a penis, a winged creature. The absurdity of it all borders on sheer silliness, but the beautiful language and the vivid imagery give the author the benefit of the doubt. Partly, From Hell is a bona fide surrealist poem with free associations threaded one on another, the combination of uncombinable images, crass violations of logic, and unexpected alliterative explosions. This is how the narrator describes himself once he becomes a city teeming with all kinds of sinners and containing all possible instruments of torture and execution:
Cittá decrepita, antica, inveterata; mutili muri, affranti anfratti, dimore diroccate, vetusti vicoli viciosi. (A city which is decrepit, ancient, inveterate; mutilated masonry, fatigued fissures, dilapidated dwellings, crumbling cruel crooked alleys).
From time to time there arise quasi-learned discussions on what hell is, what structure it has and how it relates to the rest of the world: is it a an expanding maze? does it penetrate the whole universe like some noxious vapour? does it contain other hells? Of course, we never get any definite answers to any such questions. Even a lecture on the limits of hell delivered by a bespectacled amphisbaena leaves some room for interpretation. Whereas Dante’s Inferno is logical, hierarchical and coherent, the hell of Manganelli is simply preposterous. When the narrator undertakes a journey inside himself, the metaforicity of this experience is somehow ousted to the background. By that time we have seen enough of the place to accept the idea of a man literally walking inside his own body. The hallucinatory of the world of the living is the mundane in the netherworld. Different parts of the narrator’s body turn out to contain distinct places. Thus, in his fingers lie menacing grottoes inhabited by dragons,and in his right leg sprawls a deserted city. Further exploration of his body once again reminds us of the fact that there is no end to confusion and indeterminacy in this place. Here is what the dumbfounded traveller says when he enters his own head:
I see something that I can define as a project. I don’t know whether it is a palace, sarcophagus, battle plan, graveyard, altar; a huge wing of an unknown animal, the morphology of a non-existent and unpronounceable language.
The confusion experienced by the narrator is aggravated by constant deception and falsification on the part of the local dwellers. During his wanderings he meets several creatures that he exposes as false gods, one of which is a never-to-be-born foetus lying in an alchemist retort. And why should anyone be surprised when the narrator enters into a prolonged discussion on the false nature of divinity with a garrulous hairy ear surrounded by sentient mushrooms?
From Hell is as scatological as it is eschatological. There is shit everywhere. It threatens to inundate the poor man not only from outside, by also from within. In the course of the whole journey the main character has to suffer the nasty doll devouring his entrails and then defecating and urinating into his abdominal cavity. What is the significance of this perverse Beatrice? There might be many interpretations, but as to the real life prototype, there is more clarity thanks to Nicolas Tripet’s documentary Giorgio Manganelli: Discourse on the Difficulty of Communicating with the Dead. In an interview Manganelli’s daughter reveals that her father openly told her that he had her in mind when creating this character. She also mentions Manganelli’s terror of children, which sheds some light on the mixture of affection and aversion the narrator feels towards the creature nestling inside. It does seem like a very personal book, but it’s not my goal to dig deeper into the writer’s biography here.
As yet another attempt to look into the abyss, Manganelli’s novel will appeal to anyone who is interested in creative probing of the mythological dimension of hell. The neoavanguardia treatment of the subject matter adds a certain playfulness to it, so even the grimmest episodes that will not possibly make you laugh, might cause you to smile in disbelief at what you have just read.