Phlegyas ferries Dante and Virgil across the Styx. Illustration by Gustave Doré for an 1862 edition of The Divine Comedy. WikiArt

The doors closed again. Matteo found himself looking over a huge open expanse. He was standing on a plain covered in black grass. It looked like those fields that Tuscan farmers burn in summer to fertilise them. Nothing else was growing as far as the eye could see except for that short grass, black and dry, that crackled underfoot. He could see clearly, but that was strange because there was no moon or stars to explain the luminosity.

By Matteo’s side stood the shade of Don Mazerotti. He looked exactly like the priest – the same height, the same girth and the same features – but with no substance. Mazerotti’s body had stayed on the other side of the gate, and it was the shade that was going where the spirits of the dead go. There was nothing else for Matteo to do but follow him. The shade would show the way and lead him into the heart of the kingdom.

They began to move forward and soon heard a distant noise like the crashing of a waterfall. Matteo advanced fearfully, looking suspiciously at everything around him. He did not want to make any noise, fearing that at any moment he would be taken by death, which he could feel everywhere, or that hideous creatures would come to scratch his face and eat the life out of him.

Suddenly the noise was deafening. They had come to the banks of an enormous river. Matteo stopped and looked at the waters roiling in front of him. They were black like thick tar and topped with a grey foam that spurted in great tumultuous fountains several feet high. Whirlpools went by at great speed. The water swelled and spat, stirred up as if it would burst its banks, which seemed too narrow to contain its rage.

“What’s that?” asked Matteo.

“The River of Tears,” replied the shadow of the priest in a voice without intonation. “This is the place where souls are tortured. They are tossed about in all directions and they groan.”

Matteo looked more closely. In the waters, he could now indeed distinguish a multitude of shadows waving like drowning men, fighting in vain against the current. At first he had confused them with the river water, but, now that he was looking carefully, he understood that the river was in fact mainly shades: millions of them, one on top of the other, carried along by the current, continually toppled and whipped by the waters. A river of shrieking souls.

During the descent, the dead souls saw their whole lives pass by. Not their lives as they believed they had lived them, but their lives made ugly by the malevolence of the waters.”

“What should we do?” asked Matteo, terrified. And Mazerotti’s shade answered as Matteo feared he would, “We have to cross.” Then as Matteo did not move, he added, “Don’t be frightened, the river will have no use for you.” So they approached, until they were right beside the river. And without a word the priest slipped into the water. Matteo heard a long groan escape the shadow of his friend. He tried to keep him in sight – like watching a piece of driftwood that a stormy sea repeatedly swallows and spits out again – but he lost him. He was already too far away. Matteo waited a little longer, then he had to force himself to get slowly into the water. Then he was bemused. The water only came up to his shoulders, but it was black and violent and spurted in great bubbles as if very angry. The rest of the river was made up of shades buffeted by the current. They were what had given the impression from afar of a river leaping to a great height. It was they who formed the whirlpools and groaned. Now that he had plunged in amongst them, he understood what they were enduring. Their cries reached him, their pleas, their pitiful complaints. During the descent in the River of Tears, the dead souls saw their whole lives pass by. Not their lives as they believed they had lived them, but their lives made ugly by the malevolence of the waters. The water kept beating them, and throwing them against rocks, and pushing their heads under the water and offering them a vision of their existence that both dismayed and perturbed them. Usually the picture it held up to them was neither totally good nor really bad, but marred by a thousand moments of doubt and meanness. Faced with these images, the souls moaned. Where they remembered having been generous, they saw themselves being petty. Moments of beauty were stained with small-mindedness. Everything became grey. The river tortured them. It didn’t invent anything; it just accentuated what had been. He who, at the moment of fighting, had had a second’s hesitation became a coward. He who had daydreamed about the wife of a friend saw himself as a lecherous pig. The river made their lives ugly so that the souls could leave them behind without regret. What the souls had loved became reprehensible. What they remembered with happiness now made them ashamed. Bright moments of their life became tarnished. When they got out of the river, battered by the waters, the souls were ready never to return to life again. From now on, they would be going where death took them, slowly and with their heads bowed.

As he crossed the river, Matteo could not help weeping. He cried for all these honest joyous lives, which were, all of a sudden, found to be ugly and despicable. He cried for these beings who now believed they had been vicious when they had actually been loyal. He cried for this river of torment which stole from the dead their most beautiful memories – so that they would become dull and obedient, shadows who would desire nothing and never make a fuss, who would join the immense crowd of those who were nothing any more. He cried for the cruelty of death, which deceived the souls in this way to assert its power, and to ensure there would be nothing in its endless kingdom except, as there had always been, the resigned silence of those who did not know desire, or tears or rage or light any more, and who walked without knowing where they were going, as hollow as dead trees for the wind to whistle through.

Hells_Gate_290From Hell’s Gate, translated by Jane Aitken and Emily Boyce.


Laurent Gaudé, born in 1972, is one of France’s most highly respected playwrights and novelists. He has won many prizes including the Prix Goncourt in 2004 for The Scortas’ Sun, which has been published in 34 countries. Hell’s Gate, translated by Jane Aitken and Emily Boyce, is published in paperback by Gallic Books, price £8.99. Read more.

See also
In the shadow of Vesuvius
by Laurent Gaudé