Dante’s Inferno (Cantos I–IV)
Introduction by Max Hundwurst
as delivered orally to the General Assembly at Krinstfest ‘88
As some of you know, I was recently in Italy, where I was researching the records of Krinst’s stay at the Manicomio di Roma. Although I have not yet finished that particular work due to an unpleasant incident with the Mother Superior of that Institution, I am happy to announce the discovery of that masterpiece which has heretofore been only the subject of hopeful rumor: the Krinst translation of the Divine Comedy. Cited as lost for years, Krinst’s Inferno will now see the light.
A few words of introduction may be helpful. It was in 1936, early in his career, that Krinst began his translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. He moved from his sub-basement flat in Istanbul and took residence in the fishmongers’ quarter of Florence’s posh east side. On July 12, he wrote to Carlos Del Mar about his work:
Something inside of me has stirred this. I cannot explain it; it is as if the spirit of the Poet had manifested in my liver. Aside from the predictable digestive problems, it is a mystic, powerful experience, and I must achieve this work. I must.
Krinst had, of course, attempted translation before, but without critical acclaim nor, to be sure, this fiery determination. Most notable of his published work in this area had been his reworkings of Catullus’s odes to Lesbia in to the metrical form of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (it was this early fascination with the United States that would later lead him to the “Sonnets to American Industrial Accomplishments").
After experimenting for months with various Icelandic verse forms for Dante’s opus, Krinst became frustrated and estranged. By November, he had become oddly recluse; he donned a poncho made entirely of pages torn from Dryden’s translation of the Aeneid, and refused to eat anything but Swedish rye crackers for weeks. He soon became weak and incoherent. Then, in February of 1937, walking near the Piazza di Posteggio a Pagamento, he was struck with an epiphanous revelation:
It was as clear as spit, like a great, shining grapefruit before my eyes: whole and compact, yet filled with the bittersweet fruit of knowledge. My God, it was then that I knew what it was that I had to do.
The decision to translate the Divine Comedy into a series of limericks was, to be sure, one that has defined the very nature of the Krinst genius. Krinst raced from the scene of his inspiration to his one-room flat and, with a fury unnatural to a body so malnourished, began to transcribe, remaining awake and in his room for the next two weeks. In that span, Krinst managed to translate, some say definitively, all of the Inferno and nearly seventeen cantos of the Purgatorio before collapsing into a dead faint of exhaustion. When his body was discovered days later by his landlady, it bore testament to the emotional triumph and drainage of his achievement; his left hand had frozen around the piece of green chalk with which he had inscribed his masterpiece.
Krinst regained consciousness a few days later in the nursing home of a certain Adelmo Tossico, an ex-cheese tycoon who, after a notorious scandal involving several nightclub showgirls and nearly a ton of shredded Parmesan, had devoted his life to charity. From there, he was transferred to the Manicomio, where, fifty years later, I fortuitously stumbled upon a few notes made by his advisor, a certain Dottore Franco di Franco. However much di Franco would have cringed at the idea (he writes, like the young fascisti he was, “Signore Krinst dice che lui ha tradutto la Divina Commedia. L’idea me fa vomitare"), it is he whom we ultimately must than for this discovery.
There are few precedents for such a happy conjunction. We might think of Pope’s Homer, Fafnir Finkelmeyer’s Mallorn, Beckett’s Rimbaud, or Calvino’s translation of Queneau’s Blue Flowers. But Krinst is more: more papist than Pope, more fickle than Finklemeyer, and more Becketian than Beckett (but, thankfully for Dante, less Calvinist than Calvino). These are the virtues he brings to the Comedy, and he brings them with a vengeance. He allows Dante to speak to us through the confessional window of Time’s latticework, absolve us of the sins that for us of the twentieth century are all too original: Atomism, Cynicism, Relativism. That Krinst was drawn to Dante should not surprise us. Krinst is to our age what Dante was to his: a model, a spokesperson, a critic, a friend.
Note on the Text
Krinst, in one of those frequent acts of inspiration that we can only hope to someday understand, inscribed the bulk of his original text on the wall of his small Florentine bedroom. Carefully removing the years of paint, plaster, and wallpaper has been a tedious job, at best. Only this small section of the text has been fully recovered. It is, I believe, a completely reliable text of the first four cantos of Krinst’s Inferno.
In the midst of our life I was lost
And in a dark wood I was toss’d.
It’s fearful to say
What happened that day;
My death is nearly the cost.
But to tell of the good that I found
I’ll write all the other things down.
I was sleepy at first
But I saw the sun burst
And felt like I’d almost been drown’d.
So it looked like a bright sunny day—
But a leopard got in my way,
Then a lion—so mean!
And a she-wolf—so lean.
I felt like I’d lost all my pay.
Then I met with a man who was hoarse
And to him I said with much force:
“Have pity on me,
Whatever you be:
A man or a shadowy corpse.”
“No,” he said, “I’m no longer a man;
But my folks were both Mantuan.
I was born under Caesar;
Now I’ll give you a teaser:
Guess who I am if you can.”
“You’re Virgil,” I said with some shame,
“And I sure am happy you came.
Your books are all great—
But I’m in a state—
I’d be glad if that wolf you would tame.”
“You must take a whole ’nother way
‘Cause you won’t pass this one I say.
She’s greedy, she’s sore,
She always wants more;
But the dog will soon have his day.
“In the meantime, you’d best follow me
Through a place you’d rather not see.
Then another will show you
Where I cannot go to
‘Cause the Emp’ror has made his decree.”
“Poet,” I said, “by the God you knew not,
Help me out of this difficult spot.
Lead where you said
And I might get ahead.”
Then we both took off like a shot.
In dark’ning air the day was just done
As prepared I myself—just one—
For the war of the way
Which the mind will now say.
Oh muse! Leave nothing undone!
I said “Poet, consider my might;
Aeneas and Paul saw the Light,
But Aeneas I ain’t
And I’m sure not a saint,
So tell me what’s wrong and what’s right.”
“If I understand rightly your words,
You’re as chicken as Frank Perdue’s birds.
But I’ll tell you what sold me;
’Twas a woman who told me—
I know this will sound absurd—
“’Virgil, Fortune’s no friend of a friend
And the poor guy’s gone ’round the bend.
My name’s Beatrice;
I never read Nietzsche.
Glad I a hand if you would lend.”
“Then she stood without any sound
And I said ‘That’s really profound;
But lady of virtue,
Doesn’t it hurt you
To come here down under the ground?’
“She said ‘I don’t mind coming down here;
It can’t hurt me, so why should I fear?
Now Mary told Lucy
Who said “don’t you see,
Beatrice, his pitiful tears?”
“’After hearing these words I came down
As fast as an apple turns brown
To trust in your speech
Which, like a peach,
Honors you and all those around.’
“After I heard what she had to say
Her eyes made me come on my way.
I saved you, you see;
So be bold, be free!
Now what? Why do you delay?”
Like flowers closed with the night
I opened up to the brightening light.
I said “what a gal!”
And “Virgil—my pal!”
As we set out on the highway of fright.
THROUGH ME TO THE CITY INSANE,
THROUGH ME TO ETERNAL PAIN.
THE HIGH MAKER MADE ME;
I’M HERE FOR ETERNITY.
ENTER AND ALL HOPE WILL WANE.
I said “Chief, these words are not clear.”
Said he: “Now you listen here;
Don’t be a dope
And abandon your hope.
Abandon your mistrust and fear!”
Then I heard lamentations and sighs,
And at first I started to cry.
The voices and hands
Were like wind in the sand.
I said “master, who are these guys?”
“They to choose good or bad were too weak.”
He said. “Of them let us not speak.”
They followed a flag
In a big game of tag
And worms licked the blood at their feet.
Then saw I a crowd on a river,
And said “master, who are those thither?”
Then a man in a yawl
Said “woe to you all!”
In a voice that sure made me shiver.
“Living people aren’t allowed on the boat,”
He said. “The darn thing just wouldn’t float.”
Virgil said “love,
He’s got friends above,
So, quick, take us over the moat.”
It sure was crowded on board;
Folks blasphemed and shouted and swore.
Charon takes ‘em across
And leaves ‘em like moss
While another bunch gathers on shore.
Virgil said “all those that die in the wrath
Of God will walk down this path.
The good do not deign;
So if Charon complains,
You can see where he’s doing his math.”
When we stopped, my heart gave a leap.
The ground shook and started to weep.
Even still, now,
It scares me, and how!
And I fell like one’s who’s asleep.
A thunder-clap woke me from sleep;
I saw a valley so dark and so deep.
Virgil was pale
As a mouse sent to jail,
And said “me first and you follow me.”
When I saw the Poet was wan
I said “You’re puttin’ me on.”
“Pity, not fright,”
He said, “paints me so white;
So hurry, get a move on.”
We entered the first ring of Hell.
Virgil said “these are, let me tell,
Those born before
Christ opened his door;
That’s the reason we’re down in this dell.”
I said “but didn’t some get away?”
“Yes,” I then heard him say;
“I wasn’t here long
When a man came along
And took a bunch to the light of day.”
We walked ‘til I saw a light
And some men I sensed with my sight.
I said with a start
“Who’re those, there, apart,
Who shine with a brilliance so bright?”
He said “they’ve got friends upstairs.”
Then a voice caught us unawares:
“It’s Virgil the rover!”
Then four shades come over
With neither sad- nor joy-looking stares.
The master said, without any delay,
“There’s Homer, who’s king to this day,
And Horace, a bird.
Ovid is third
And Edna St. Vincent Millay.”
Thus there was the highest of rhyme.
We talked together a time.
They then welcomed me
As a flea among bees.
A half-dozen worth more than a dime.
We entered a seven-walled park
Where I saw Senec’ and Cicero bark.
What I heard I can’t say
‘Cause Virg’ led me away.
I came out to a day full of dark.