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From the Publisher"To coincide with the San Jose Museum of Art's complete exhibition of Birk's Dante (opening Sept. 24), Chronicle has just published Birk's last two volumes in the set. Mercifully, all us Birkheads can now breathe easy. The completed "Commedia" is a masterwork, vulnerable in places to nitpicking but infinitely enriched by motifs that emerge only after contemplation of the full trilogy. One would no sooner own this "Inferno" without its two sequelae than eat breakfast but skip lunch and dinner.
For the benefit of those coming late to the party, Birk's "Commedia" transplants Dante's original three-part epic of spiritual pilgrimage from 14th century Italy to present-day California and beyond. In place of Dante's terraced purgatorial mountain, we get a lived-in cityscape of beleaguered palm trees and sooty freeway cloverleafs. Instead of the original "Paradiso's" saints and angels in all their maddeningly indescribable beauty, behold St. Peter as a paunchy rent-a-cop, Dante's beloved Beatrice as an earthy chola, and a strangely australopithecan Adam who looks more Darwinian than biblical. As with Birk's still unsurpassed faux-historical "Great War of the Californias, " and his canvases of California prisons in the style of the great luminist painters Bierstadt and Moran, past and present commingle here in a great satirical danse macabre. The two new books play counterpoint not just to Gustave Dore's enduring 19th century Dante engravings but also to Birk's own first volume of last year. Where Birk's "Commedia" began with the depressing image of a toppled grocery cart beside a spray-painted concrete parking bollard, the 33rd and final canto of the "Paradiso" opens with what, in Birk's clear-eyed but undespairing vision, passes for hope: a similar shopping cart, only now upright, presumably aspiring heavenward. It ain't harps and halos, but it'll have to do. As with the tree in Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," which between the first and second act appears to sprout "four or five leaves," we don't get paradise — just progress. " — San Francisco Chronicle