The One that brings Orpheus to Italy

Laurent Gaudé, La Porte des Enfers (2008, French) / Hell’s Gate to be published in English in 2017

Laurent Gaudé’s books require a certain mood. It’s not the kind of books that you take lightly if you have a small pocket of time in-between your daily chores. It’s not the kind of books that you pick up if you want an entertaining read. No, that’s serious stuff, and you should probably sit down and turn off your phone.

Laurent Gaudé embarks you in an epic story and you cannot disembark before the next harbor. There’s nothing small and quiet in Gaudé’s stories. Emotions are heightened, people invoke the gods or fate or other super-human forces.

This time he takes us to Naples, Italy. The cliché is that Italians are hot-blooded, but here even introverted Scandinavian readers (assuming they can read it in French or English) will have a hard time staying dry-eyed with his first scene, or with the end of the book. It probably would warrant a trigger warning of sorts if it was contemplated for publication in the U.S. as it deals with the death of a child. But the death itself comes within the first few pages, so there is a lot more to it. The whole book is about grief and the consequences that this untimely death has over the child’s parents lives.

Except it goes into uncharted territories with this rather common theme. Gaudé dares to take the mythical story of Orpheus and transpose it into modern life. The child’s mother is devastated and challenges her husband to kill the child’s murderer or to bring their child back from death. And then the father meets someone who claims that in a hidden corner of the old town of Naples, a door leads to the underworld. He doubts it, but then he has to go and see for himself.

I will not reveal the secrets of this mesmerizing book. Not only are the themes powerful, but Gaude’s writing is gorgeous. I hope that the English translator will convey the rhythm of his sentences, both elegiac and violent.

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