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

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own