In the jubilee year of 2000, a veteran Australian journalist in Rome, Gerardo Tobino, comes across a down-at-heel but imperious figure who is passed off under the name of Daniele Allegri, The Diviner Comedy being his latest. Tobino recognises him as a reincarnation of Dante Alighieri, who died 700 years ago, and whose biography he has yearned to write.
Desmond O’Grady is now over ninety, a writer who left Melbourne in his twenties over sixty years ago. He married and remained in Rome, becoming the author of over a dozen books. In addition, he is a widely syndicated journalist, with his reporting on Italian and Vatican affairs, up to the recent Pell imbroglio, published in many of the world’s newspapers, including Australian ones. His saturation in Italy’s culture and its religious past is evident everywhere in this novel and in his journalism. His photo graced the front cover of Quadrant’s edition of February 1971, which included one of his short stories. O’Grady is one of our expatriates, like Clive James, Barry Humphries, Peter Porter, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes, who kept in touch with their country of origin and have interpreted it to the world and the world to it. Sitting out the virus in Rome, he recently wrote: “Isolation is briefly overcome daily at 6pm when some throughout Italy sing on their balconies or, on March 25, read agreed passages of Dante’s 14th century poem The Divine Comedy.”
This review appears in the May edition of Quadrant.
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In this novel, Dante is a revenant figure, like Ossian, King Arthur and Barbarossa in European mythology, a once and future leader expecting to resume his former centre-stage role. But he emerges blinking unknowingly into the strange modern penumbra. The narrator’s surname, Tobino, references a prominent Melbourne undertaking firm, who bury the dead, whereas Tobino/O’Grady wishes to exhume them. Scruffy, and at home with the homeless at Rome’s Termini railway station, Dante is given refuge by Tobino, who becomes his host in Rome and guide to modern mores. In return Tobino questions him on the high intrigues of Renaissance Italy, matters which intrigue him. In Tobino’s flat the housemaid and her son play the role of the chorus in a play, injecting a welcome touch of normality into the highly charged proceedings.
The novel’s central conceit allows O’Grady great latitude in shifting gears between present and past, between fact and imagination, between domination and submission, and between lust and religion. Time scales are concertinaed and different locations amalgamated. Such sudden shifts of perspective give the novel its drive and insights. These crossovers between different planes of existence have to be handled seamlessly to establish the novel’s plausibility. But Dante scornfully rebukes the intending author: “any biography you wrote would be fiction”.
At first, a power struggle develops between Tobino, who with a settled role in society holds all the cards, and the outsider Dante, who dominates psychologically by holding the trump of historical memory which Tobino seeks. The Dante figure acts as a victim—moody, irascible, vengeful, disturbed and ultimately unsatisfiable; the narrator accuses him of being a control freak. Dante as curmudgeon continues to pour out his bile on his old Florentine, Papal and other enemies; he remembers his exalted coevals of centuries ago as a bunch of cut-throats. He emerges as a complex and contradictory figure, “for he shared the Florentine characteristics he berated”. The narrator realises that the Dante he encounters is “a pre-iconic, proto-Dante not yet transformed by writing his magnum opus”. Gradually, the contention of opposites between the two gives way to a recognition of mutual needs: both are exiles, both unfulfilled, both rely on each other, both require guides and submission as they wander in life’s dark wood, which does not easily surrender its meaning. They are becoming not so much rivals as mirror images of each other.
Dante is an exile from Florence, and Tobino from Australia. They have been defeated in their larger aims, finding their present existence increasingly burdensome, as they yearn in old age to return to their place of origin. Both need guides: Homer was Virgil’s guide, and Virgil in turn was Dante’s, until he adopts Beatrice, who then becomes his muse. Tobino is now Dante’s guide to the brash modern world which has such strange creatures in it.
After its initial scenes in Rome, the novel takes on a picaresque form as the protagonists embark on a modern grand tour. Tobino now combines the roles of tourist guide, researcher and biographer as he escorts the revenant, and the reader, around Dante’s old haunts in places such as Pisa, Ravenna, Siena and Florence itself. O’Grady’s description of Ostia, the port of Rome before the Tiber snagged up, reveals his historical reach:
[Ostia] reminded me of Sydney streets leading to the harbour. From the stumps of columns, beady-eyed seagulls assess you as though you were bait. Once the zone beyond the sea gate would have been thronged with sailors from ships which brought wheat from Sicily and Egypt, game from Gaul, hams from Spain, spices from the East but also many cults. Here were the remains of Europe’s oldest synagogue and a temple of the Great Mother, the goddess of fertility. For Dante it was all brand new.
The tour, which eventually stretches as far as Hollywood and Sydney, provides an opportunity to satirise today’s garish behaviour, money-grabbing and celebrity-seeking.
Dante for a time embraces with gusto figures such as a Hollywood groupie named Chloe, and a crass Flash Gordon lookalike, tawdry down-market behaviour the narrator finds distasteful: “Would they be roller-blading together to San Vitale and the discotheques?” The novel’s dual focus at this stage is evident in the narrator’s description of Ravenna:
Now I saw fractured Ravenna, both a city of suspended memory, magically preserved, and the new, nowhere town of Flash Gordon … Ravenna seemed caught between nether regions and glittering Paradises.
Like an innocent adolescent, Dante falls at the first hurdle for contemporary sleaze and erotic excitement, which Tobino rejects. Though for decades a cultured modern Roman litterateur, Tobino/O’Grady is still vestigially prey to the guilt and remorse imbibed in the Melbourne Irish Catholic culture of the 1940s and 1950s, and feels a need for repentance and transcending his present woes, tropes from the old Catholic copybook. But his horizons have been widened by the liberalism of succeeding decades. One passage describing the revenant Dante may be close to the alignment of values Tobino/O’Grady had come to by the Holy Year of 2000:
I saw that he believed in the whole ball and dice: God’s grace and Christ’s merits, the communion between believers in this world and souls in the next, mercy stronger than sin and the Church’s responsibility to make all this available. His was a rock-bottom belief, unshakeable. But not narrow—I was pleased to find he synthesized the biblical and classical even in ethics where he adopted Aristotle just as he appreciated Averroes.
Tobino has little in common with those secularists “for whom osmosis with the other worlds was outlandish, because their world was hermetically sealed. I had discovered that the seal was thin, a mere porous membrane between time and eternity.” In his cosmology, Australia is like purgatory, bypassing the main currents, a time out of life, bearable by fortunately missing out on the abyss, but lacking intimations of the transcendent. Tobino needs Dante, who has experienced paradise, to convey some inkling of its bliss.
This is the book of an old person, seemingly resigned, but making a late effort to redeem himself. There is an undercurrent in the novel of personal disappointment and disguised confession by Tobino. Things have got out of proportion: his deceased wife has “become a shade while the revenant hogged the limelight”. The narrator describes himself as caught between two countries: “I disappointed my family and friends by leaving Australia.” They were “expecting something special from Geraldo. I had expectations also but they remained only expectations decade after decades … a big selling biography was needed to compensate for abandoning journalism.” The narrator chides himself for being “the nosey journalist using Dante to become an author”. He realises that “suffering helps deepen one’s humanity … the harder the hurt, the richer the response”.
How much all this applies to Desmond O’Grady himself is left to the reader to suss out, but there is a remarkable recent parallel. Clive James also left Australia and devoted himself for decades to journalism and the media. But he regretted in his last years having misdirected his great gifts. As underlying co-morbidities were taking over his body, he made one last effort to reach beyond the limits of the journalism and media he had so long enhanced. He lifted his game by composing his summa, Cultural Amnesia, and as a coda by late poems such as “Japanese Maple” where he moves beyond his previous modus operandi. James also yearned to return to Australia. The Russian writer Varlam Shalamov experienced a real-life Inferno in enduring fourteen years in Stalin’s gulag empire in Siberia’s frozen wastes, where even tears turned to ice. Returning to the outskirts of Moscow as a shade from another world, he was able to understand his own experience of suffering by comparing his writing on the frozen gulag with Dante in his Inferno writing on the last, frozen circle of Hell:
Our tools are primitive
a rouble’s worth of paper,
a hurrying pencil.
That’s all we require
to build a castle—
high in the air—
above the world’s bustle.
Dante needed nothing else
to build gates
into that Hell hole
founded on ice.
In this novel, O’Grady employs a similarly smooth uncluttered style, perfected through decades of paring away the inessential. This enables him to meld his disparate material into a fascinating whole.
The Diviner Comedy: A Novel
by Desmond O’Grady
Arcadia, 2021, 274 pages, $29.95
Patrick Morgan lives in Gippsland