By Randy Boyagoda
Written in the early fourteenth century, the Comedy of Dante Alighieri (only later designated as “Divine”) is considered by many to be the greatest poem ever written in any language. One test of that status in our own time is the continuing popularity of its many translations into English and its widespread presence in contemporary culture.
Randy Boyagoda’s Dante’s Indiana, the second volume of a projected trilogy about a Toronto academic named Prin, takes that ongoing process of cultural assimilation as a starting point.
Following closely on the events of the previous novel, Original Prin, things kick off here with Prin experiencing a full-blown mid-life crisis. He has, in the language of Dante, lost his way. His marriage is under stress, and when a trip abroad leaves him with PTSD and unemployed he finds himself taken on in an advisory capacity by a family-run packaging business whose patriarch is building a Dante-inspired theme park in Terre Haute, Indiana whose goal is “to put fun back in the fear of God.”
Chaos ensues as the opening of the theme park runs into the buzz saw of life in twenty-first century America. Terre Haute is caught in the grips of the opiate epidemic and race riots break out when a young Black man is killed by the police. All of this has an immediate impact on the team Prin has joined at the park, and while he tries to keep everything on schedule he has to also juggle his disintegrating life. Prin’s family is threatening to come apart as he has to manage a long-distance relationship while an old boyfriend is making moves on his wife.
It’s the emphasis on family that connects all of the different stories in Dante’s Indiana. One of Prin’s co-workers has a daughter who is a heroin addict. The family of the murdered teen is another focal point, as is a Sri Lankan family that wants to adopt Prin.
Dante himself was married with children, but they don’t figure at all in the Comedy. He was interested in genealogy, but not family in the nuclear sense.
This is enough to let you know that Boyagoda isn’t interested in writing a modern version of the Comedy, on the order of what James Joyce did with Homer in Ulysses. He’s telling a story of redemption, but not following any formal model laid down by Dante, or even alluding to the Comedy much beyond a few obvious winks.
Still, given the precedent being invoked it’s clear that Boyagoda set himself a challenge, and it’s one that he’s up to. It is, for example, notoriously hard for writers to represent or evoke the sense of smell, but Boyagoda makes it seem easy with a series of apt similes: tap water in a public school that “smelled like flat Coke,” a truck interior that smells “like a lemon grove of baby wipes,” and fast food that gives a car an odour “like steaming bodies.”
This is the sort of imaginative verbal panache that in our own vernacular pays tribute to Dante as literary guide. As a spiritual guide the link is harder to make out, mainly because Boyagoda wants to explore domestic virtues – caring, mutual support, stability – that Dante was less interested in. The classics, however, are always reimagined in ways that respond to the personal anxieties and public crises of our own time. In the shattered funhouse of the twenty-first century we have to to redefine the content of a faith that sustains.
Review first published in the Toronto Star, September 3 2021.