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The gates of hell: An historical novel of the present day

1 rating: 3.0
A book by Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn

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Author: Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn
Publisher: Sheed & Ward
1 review about The gates of hell: An historical novel of...

A proletarian Church in a battle for souls

  • Jul 8, 2006
In "The Timeless Christian," his 1969 book about contemporary issues in the Catholic Church, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn wrote about the "romantic protest against a middle-class Church" and the passionate drive for "solidarity" with the working class. "I still recall with a certain wistfulness my own youthful -- if slightly cautious -- enthusiasm of thirty-seven years ago for the model of a Church liberated from its bourgeois image when I wrote 'Gates of Hell.'"

"The Gates of Hell" is, from what I can determine, K-L's first novel, and also the first of his works to be translated into English. According to a note printed below the bibliographic information, he began writing it in the summer of 1931 (i.e., some time around his 22nd birthday) "in the Kristillinen Matkailijakoti, Helsingfors," and finished it in November of the following year "in the Pesti Szent Imre-Kollégium, Budapesth." This is a world, the Prologue makes clear, in which communism is on the march. The western world is alternately enthralled by, or paralyzed by fear of, the workers' paradise in the east. "Only in Rome was there calm recollection," as the Catholic Church, softly but relentlessly, strikes blow after blow "at the heart and the head and the marrow of the new, terrible, mortally unhappy heresy of a leveling-down of humanity."

One weapon in this fight is K-L's protagonist, a young German man named Eugen Düring. A devout Catholic, and as passionate about his ideals as any socialist on a corner soapbox, Eugen volunteers to infiltrate the Soviet Union and report back on the state of Christian belief and the health of the Church in Russia. After rigorous instruction, not just in how to pass as, but indeed how to *be*, a Latvian writer named Nikalai Sergeyevitch Kisseleff. Eugen -- or Nikalai, as K-L now refers to him -- sneaks across the border and begins his fact-gathering mission. Before long, however, Nikalai is arrested for a rape committed by the real Kisseleff, now deceased. Rather than reveal his true identity, Nikalai decides to serve the sentence for "his" crime and do what he can in this new mission field where God has unexpectedly placed him. The bulk of the novel takes place during Nikalai's time in prison camps.

I don't know where K-L got his information, or how he did his research, but his portrayal of a Soviet prison camp circa 1933 was a surprising one. Though hardly cushy, it's not the Stalinist gulag Solzhenitsyn would write about in later decades. Nikalai is relatively outspoken in his opposition to communism, argues with the propagandists and political officers, and slyly presents arguments that, while not explicitly Roman Catholic, would direct the thoughtful away from atheist orthodoxy and toward the truth of Christ's revelation. Eventually, and through a series of machinations, Nikalai escapes from camp, makes his way to the West, and resumes his life as Eugen. The rest of the book is, at least in part, about the difficulties of Eugen's readjustment upon his return to Germany.

"The Gates of Hell" is a troubling, at times frustrating, novel. Like several subsequent K-L heroes, Eugen/Nikalai is not a terribly attractive character (though interestingly, I found Nikalai much more likeable than Eugen). Nikalai's time in prison camp is the key part of the story, and the section K-L handles best. The "Eugen" chapters on either end -- perhaps like Eugen's life itself -- lack the drive and focus of his time in Russia. The end of the story, though in a sense appropriate and even poetic for Eugen, was dissatisfying and struck me as arbitrary.

This volume has a fascinating premise and, given the caveats above, isn't too bad as first novels go. As with all of K-L's fiction, the author is more interesting than the story, and the best part of the novel is the insight it gives into the writer's ideas and the light it casts on his later nonfiction works. As he acknowledged in the section of "The Timeless Christian" mentioned above, the romantic proletarian enthusiasms of the early 1930s didn't survive into his more mature years. "In the web of time," he wrote, "these visions were justified in those days. Today, the illusions are exploded: enthusiasm is beautiful, but realism is obligatory."

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