Having immersed myself in Dante at university, and while living in Italy after that, I was intrigued by the notion of John Agard‘s The Young Inferno (Frances Lincoln, 2008)… How could it be possible to bring a fourteenth century work of poetry, no matter how seminal, to a young, English-speaking audience, when most of them would never have heard of him? Well, Agard has managed to bring this up-to-date parallel to Dante’s Hell very much alive and, judging by Little Brother’s reaction, they will then want to know about the “Old Inferno” too. The poem is ambitious, exciting and relevant – an exhilarating journey!
There are thirteen cantos of varying lengths, divided into tercets plus a single, climactic line at the end. The young narrator’s guide is Aesop, who leads him through the circles of hell, giving introduction and explanations, and telling a couple of his own fables along the way. Agard’s version of Hell contains a mix of modern and ancient inhabitants – some of whom may be a little surprising at first, like Einstein. And I love the ending, where the boy emerges through the floor of a library, of all places, to come face to face with his Beatrice…
Satoshi Kitamura‘s black and white illustrations are, as ever, superb – atmospheric, grotesque, witty – they complement Agard’s verse perfectly. My boys have been intrigued and a bit scared by the whole book and Little Brother (definitely put off Mammon!) has learned a lot about urban culture… we were at our Town Feast last week-end and he stood outside the door announcing that he was going to be a bouncer! It’s no surprise that The Young Inferno won this year’s UK-based Centre for Literacy in Primary Education Poetry Award; or that it is is being adapted for the stage (I’ll be watching its progress with interest…).
Here’s a taster from the ninth and final circle of hell:
‘…History knows me as Attila the Hun
Who ravaged countless cities in the Balkans.
But deep down, I’m still a family man…’
‘That’s enough,’ my teacher said to Attila.
‘Don’t burden the boy with your excuses.
I know we can’t all be Nelson Mandela.
But whatever your race, your shape or your -ism,
I’ve got news for warmongers and tyrants:
Hell’s Ninth Circle will be your five-star prison.”