So when Sandow Birk planned the illustrations for his new version of Dante's Divine Comedy, presented handsomely and with panache by Chronicle Books, San Francisco seemed like the perfect Purgatory. Along with Marcus Sanders, a San Franciscan and contributing editor of Surfing magazine, Birk, himself a surfer and painter who lives in Long Beach, has rendered the 14th-century epic poem in a striking and unprecedented vernacular. Characters who might otherwise be enraptured or dispirited by their sacred and profane travails are, respectively, stoked or bummed, and the hero's familiar progress toward redemption through an advance look at the afterlife could be described quite seriously as kinda bitchin'. Because Birk and Sanders have already set their Inferno in L.A. -- a no-brainer as far as most of us are concerned -- their Purgatorio works especially well with San Francisco streetscapes, in Birk's careful, crosshatched drawings, as its visual frame of reference.
No, "set in" isn't exactly right; it's more that the poem has been set against these familiar urban spaces -- obviously the poet's specification of Purgatory as an island mountain in the Southern Hemisphere, exactly opposite Jerusalem on the other side of the world, has not been taken literally. The illustrations have a great, understated way of commenting on, or goofing on, the information provided by the text. In fact, not knowing exactly what to call this version -- adaptation, update, extended riff, hallucination? -- is a large part of its charm. Birk and Sanders' book shows faith and good will toward the original, but certainly nothing close to servile obedience.
The basic narrative remains intact: Dante spent Part 2 of his trilogy recognizing and transcending the deadly sins, in sequence, with guidance from the poet Virgil; this book hews closely to that story. But the total absence of pretense to scholarly authority seems especially liberating for Birk, who dresses his Dante-self in sneakers, baggy jeans, and a hoodie, and inscribes "Alighieri" on the underside of his skateboard deck.
Even posthumously, Dante Alighieri, like Rembrandt van Rijn, enjoys the privilege of such enormous cultural clout that the whole world is on a first-name basis with him. The Divine Comedy still stands as a model of cosmology, epic poetry, and the capabilities of human spirit and imagination, not to mention of the adventure story as grand-scale three-parter. It is a rudiment of Western culture. For any ambitious artist to take it on at all seems at once inevitable and a little risky. But why not reclaim it, bring it down from the dusty mantel of Western culture, and try working it into the culture of the west -- as in the self-made, reflexively revisionist history of the left coast?
Of course any surfer-dude Purgatorio, with guest appearances by Malcolm X, Eminem, Jayson Blair, Gray Davis, Imelda Marcos, and other contemporaries, will be susceptible to some dramatic attention from the literary community. On one hand, you'll have the excessively grateful praise from those academics who try too hard to be hip, and who've presumed and lamented the lost appreciation for Dante's masterpiece in an age of declining attention spans. On the other hand, you'll have reactionary rebukes from those purists who don't try hard enough to be hip, and who would gladly sacrifice the younger generation's awareness of the work in order to ensure that it remains uncorrupted.
What's obvious right away, however, is that Dante's work is durable enough to outlive these squabbles -- and that Birk and Sanders aren't really worried about pleasing everybody. As they observe in the opening of Canto IV, for instance, "Some people believe that our bodies can have/more than one soul, but they're tripping."
True, the breezy, young-urbanite disposition sometimes seems at odds with the details it surveys: Our protagonist here is uncommonly, and uncharacteristically, versed in art history and mythology, a fact not easily masked by the authors' efforts to counterpoint his aesthetic raptures with the occasional disarming quip. ("By then we had hiked further around the/mountain than I thought, but as you can tell,/I was kinda zoning out on all the art and stuff.") Here and there we encounter a faint whiff of apology for the brazen indulgence that was required to undertake this project in the first place.
But as Marcia Tanner points out in the preface, Birk is probably the first interpreter of Dante to tackle both the text and the images of The Divine Comedy at once. His engagement with the poet, while not entirely reverent (and not at all required to be), is total and commendable. The book's best attribute, manifested most succinctly in the imagery but also sometimes in the text, is its honed sensitivity to the poetry of place. Recalls this Dante of his arrival at the Gate of Purgatory, "It was the time of night when the wind calms down and/the echo of foghorns in the harbor carries melancholy/over the bay and reminds you of the regrets and/ loneliness you'd almost been able to forget. It was the/time when you float halfway between the clear, sober/thoughts of day and the half-conscious drifting of inebriation/ and the early morning. In other words: I fell asleep." Passages like this occur frequently enough to dispel any suspicion that the transposition of the poet's universe into the dreamscape of modern San Francisco is just a gimmick.
Actually, Birk and Sanders have a knack for the sort of urban-life simile that seems so well suited to any quest story, and could so easily become strained in less capable hands: "... I had that helpless feeling like when/ you've missed an exit on the freeway and every mile/passed seems wasted until you get turned around." Birk's fateful drawings include a flattering view of California Street from Nob Hill, and of the downtown skyline from Treasure Island, as well as nondescript near-pastorals of empty street corners, parking garages, and lonely back-alley staircases.
Tanner writes in the preface: "If the spiritual exists in life, this is where we'll find it, these drawings suggest. Either it's everywhere, or it's nowhere." As true to San Francisco as it is to the original text (and certainly unlike any other English translation), Birk and Sanders' book is rich and funny and wistful and sweet. And if you get far enough into it, to borrow a line, "it gets funkier." A tale, ultimately, of endurance, hope, and generosity, tempered with a deadpan, teasing parody of urban American life, this Purgatorio flatters the San Francisco sensibility (though not too much; we shouldn't be surprised to learn that the Paradiso belongs to New York), essentially by reminding us how close to home the story finally comes.