Friday, August 22, 2008

More on Dinaw Mengestu

Dinaw Mengetsu, author of the Book Club's fall selection The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, is interviewed on NPR and also on the Penguin Book site. Learn more about the author and his inspiration for this story of African immigrants set in Logan Circle.


Heidi said...

I really enjoyed Mengestu's book and was very interested in the connections to Dante.

Critics celebrated The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears as an African novel, a Washington novel, and American novel. Mengestu’s story is at the same time a Celestial read, bearing the fruit of its titular reference to Dante’s epic poem that draws the
afterlife, the Commedia. The verse that finds Virgil and Dante exiting the truly horrific mouth of Hell, from which they can finally, gratefully, hungrily see the stars.

Most of us are familiar with the “Inferno” section of Dante’s Divine Comedy having heard, if not read, of the tortures of the wicked and the politicians (particularly!) in the Hell’s nine circles. But Virgil leads Dante out of Hell, circling through Purgatory, and into Heaven.

We know that Mengestu’s protagonist is familiar with Dante, when he talks about the passages his friend
Joseph reads aloud, from the place when Virgil and Dante exit Hell. Dante says:

Through a round aperture I saw appear,
Some of the beautiful things that Heaven bears,

Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars.

Thus, the title, and thus and important motif in the book: How is Sepha’s walking around Logan Circle like Dante’s movement through the metaphysical world?

His own interpretation of the verse is heartbreaking. Coming out of Hell is like leaving Africa; coming to America is like seeing Heaven. But he is forever stuck between them. In effect, he is stuck forever walking the purgatory of Logan Circle.

I could say much more about this, but I won’t. One thing though: In the Commedia, the sinners carry heavy stones to represent the weight of their sins. When they have atoned for one of their sins, they may move up a level.

I wonder whether Sepha ever moves up, or evolves, in his walks around the circle?


Matt Todd said...

Heidi's mention of the heavy stones carried by the sinners reminded me of the heavy bricks heaved through the windows of the new development along Logan Circle.