Bloodaxe £15; Hogarth £16.99

Antigonick, By Anne Carson
The Watch, By Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya

From an Afghan War novel to a classicist's illustrated version, the story of Antigone can still inspire

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 September

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Chief inspector of GPs: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    Steve Field: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    The man charged with inspecting doctors explains why he may not be welcome in every surgery
    Stolen youth: Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing

    Stolen youth

    Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing
    Bob Willoughby: Hollywood's first behind the scenes photographer

    Bob Willoughby: The reel deal

    He was the photographer who brought documentary photojournalism to Hollywood, changing the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Scorsese in the director's chair with De Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
    Angelina Jolie's wedding dress: made by Versace, designed by her children

    Made by Versace, designed by her children

    Angelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
    Anyone for pulled chicken?

    Pulling chicks

    Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version
    9 best steam generator irons

    9 best steam generator irons

    To get through your ironing as swiftly as possible, invest in one of these efficient gadgets
    England v Norway: Wayne Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

    Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

    New captain vows side will deliver for small Wembley crowd
    ‘We knew he was something special:’ Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing

    ‘We knew he was something special’

    Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing
    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York