Today, the moral certainties explored by Sophocles's tragedies can seem mysterious. Antigone is the story of what goes wrong when two codes of honour collide. Moral relativism would see these as nothing more than lifestyle choices, and tolerant liberalism try to negotiate a compromise. But communities who believe such codes are facts, in the same way that we might believe in the sciences or human rights, cannot negotiate them away. A tragic impasse results.
So it is astute of Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya to transpose the Antigone tragedy to the battlefields of today's wars of religion in his new novel The Watch. This eight-sided book, set in Kandahar province, uses the voices of seven protagonists and a journal to tell its story. Very different is the Canadian poet and classicist Anne Carson's new version of Sophocles's play. Her Antigonick is an avowedly personal project, as the poet continues to mourn her brother, who was also the subject of her 2009 Nox.
This desire to honour a brother's death tangles Antigone's tragedy because it is human and emotional as well as a matter of principle. Antigone is herself disobeying the code according to which her brother Polynices should be buried by men. Even if she's only doing so because her male relatives have been killed, this gives grist to her uncle Creon's insistence that his alternative honour system, which puts community loyalty above blood ties, should trump her grief. For King Creon, Polynices, who was killed when he attacked their city, deserves to be left unburied.
It's easy to see how the misogyny of this kind of honour might evoke, for a contemporary Western writer, the Taliban regime. Could there be more schematic ground on which to map the cost of living under such edicts as "All windows to be painted over so that women cannot be seen from the outside" – to quote from a list one of Roy-Bhattacharya's characters has conveniently to hand?
The trouble with schema, though, is that they map rather than excavate. It's brave of a novelist raised in post-Partition India to try to imagine the inner world of a young Pashto Muslim woman like Nizam, the legless rebaab player he casts as Antigone. It's equally brave for this writer and professor to speak for troops on active service. He has taken his military research seriously. Indeed, most of the book is taken up with strategy, soldierly chat, and the firefight in which an American base repels an attack by Pashtun Mujahideen. It is their leader, killed in the attack, that the "Amrikayi" will not surrender to Nizam for burial.
In telling his story through various eyes, Roy-Battacharya must inhabit the speech-rhythms and thought-worlds of culturally different individuals. One of his ideas is that both Americans and Afghans remain individuals, however strict the code they live by. The American platoon includes an Ivy League-educated Lieutenant, a First Sergeant from the Deep South who loves the Blues, Ramirez the Hispanic American, and Pratt the Alaskan. Helpfully, several characters are so exhausted that they fall into waking dreams – back at home, or visiting loved ones – which fill in their back-story.
They're also characterised by their speech. Pratt sounds to the English ear like a Mummerset rustic with his 17th-century verb forms. There's a lot of explicatory dialogue, too. "Nate Alizadeh" "reddens. Jeez, Sarn't, he says softly. What do I know about turbans? I'm from downtown Dee-troit."
That's the trouble with The Watch. Every character is straight down the line; their patriosim pure, their motivation idealistic, or at least understandable. All the violence can be explained by victimhood of some kind. Characters grieve – whether for massacred families, or unfaithful wives – but no one reveals mixed motives, those sneaky private squalors that make the living human truth.
In another context this seems like political correctness, but here the author's own code isn't quite that. He casts Masood, the "Tajik" interpreter, who is gay, as Antigone's sister Ismene. And these two Afghan characters are the least believable. The best we get for the tremendous compression of internal forces that might produce an Antigone is: "a tear spills out of my eye and courses down to the kameez that Fawzia has embroidered with flowers. I miss her very much".
No such under-engagement marks Anne Carson's Antigonick, whose diction is compressed into unexpected, even apparently willful, forms: "whoever // transgresses it gets death so what do you say". Its tone and project strikingly echo Memorial, Alice Oswald's radical 2011 retelling of Homer's Iliad. Dialogue, justified either centre, left or right, as in Carson's recent "Stack poems", clusters into paragraphs. Vertical or horizontal white space scores the beats.
Carson is an exceptionally rhythmic writer, and such pauses are part of her rhythmic sense-making. It's unfortunate, then, that the book's designer, Robert Currie, has set her text as handwritten block capitals. This damages the rhythm, as decoding the handwriting entails fits and starts. Worse, it feels like an indulgence too far, making it harder to trust her idiosyncratic prosody. This is a shame, because Carson's taut, nervy version of Sophocles's drama is far from whimsical.
Indeed, one problem is that Carson is such a finely-balanced writer that anything additional blurs the lines of her work. This handsomely-produced volume also overlays each page with transparencies of drawings by Bianca Stone. Surreal, often domestic, these "illustrations" seem to have their origin in another psycho-drama altogether, and to disrupt the writing yet further.
But the experiment's a fascinating one, and this interesting, risk-taking book is unignorable. Most of all, that is because of Carson's writing. Her vocabulary veers between archaism and the contemporary. But it does so without pause or punctuation: "down [man] grinds the unastonishable earth /with horse and shatter// shatters too the cheeks of birds and traps them in his forest/ headlights".
This creates a tremendous tragic momentum, which Carson ratchets up further by condensing the play. She makes one addition: the eponymous Nick "a mute part (always onstage, he measures things)". Nick characterises that "nick of time" in which the immured Antigone is not pardoned so as to prevent her suicide – and, in consequence, that of her lover, Creon's son Haemon. This is no realist drama, but something mannered yet fluent; like Expressionism or an Assyrian bas-relief.
"Last word wisdom better get some even too late", Carson's Chorus conclude. Antigone reminds us that certainty about the absolute nature of a code is a self-fulfilling prophecy, since it means we will punish those who infract it – and set in motion one of those tragic cycles of consequences that are Sophocles's subject.
Fiona Sampson's Beyond the Lyric: A map of contemporary British poetry (Chatto & Windus) appears in SeptemberReuse content