Tuesday, 15 May 2012

The Watch - Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya

'in flames I reside'

I am here to bury my brother according to the tenets of my faith. That is all there is to it.

The Hogarth Press was founded in 1917 by Virginia and Leonard Woolf, named after their house in Richmond from which they hand-printed the imprint's first titles. It remained an independent name until 1946 when it came under the banner of Chatto & Windus. Now they, in partnership with Crown in the US have relaunched Hogarth as a fiction imprint with 'an accent on the pleasures of storytelling and an awareness of the world.' Their launch title embodies both of those principles taking the tragedy of Antigone and moving it to modern-day Afghanistan. At one point in the novel a Lieutenant hands a copy of Sophocles' play to his Captain saying, 'It's about as cogent an analysis as anything you'll find about where we are today.' In looking at a conflict that many of us hear mentioned almost every day and yet which few of us probably know much detail about Roy-Bhattacharya could be said to be attempting to do the same. How well does he succeed?

A quick recap on Sophocles' Antigone first. After the civil war in Thebes that pitted two brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, against each other and which ended in the death of both, Creon emerges as the new ruler and decrees that the body of Polyneices will be left unburied on the battlefield as carrion for wild animals. Grieving sister Antigone tries to enlist the support of her sister Ismene to help her bury their brother, but she refuses, fearing the death penalty that would result if they were caught. Antigone acts alone and comes up against Creon who orders her to be buried alive in a cave. As you might expect from a Greek tragedy the play is littered with corpses by the end: Antigone joining her brothers and Creon's son and wife also taking their own lives. Creon is left cursed by the end, still king and with order preserved but at what cost?

In Afghanistan, after a fierce fire-fight in and around their compound, a group of American soldiers lie depleted and exhausted but victorious. The body of the man who led the attack against them lies ready to be transported out so it can be paraded on TV but whilst they wait for that transport a woman appears at the perimeter claiming to be the sister of the dead man. She has come to claim his body so that she can bury it according to her faith and will not leave until that has been achieved. Opinion is divided amongst the various soldiers as to how to proceed. Is the woman genuine or a potential suicide-bomber; is she in fact a woman at all?

Roy-Bhattacharya presents his narrative from several viewpoints with each chapter narrated by a different character. The first chapter, Antigone, is narrated naturally by the woman who approaches the compound, having travelled from many miles away using just her hands to propel herself on the wheeled platform that supports her legless body. She was left in this state after an attack that devastated a harmless gathering and it is this attack that provoked her brother to lead his own assault on the American base. We will hear later from a Lieutenant (Nick Frobenius) who majored in Classics at university, a medic who has learnt a lot about Afghan culture whilst posted there, an Army interpreter who sides very closely with his employers for personal reasons and other members of army personnel with differing viewpoints.

Most interesting amongst these characters, particularly when pursuing the Sophoclean parallels is Frobenius. His interest in the classics makes him an unlikely military man but whatever his reasons for joining the army he now finds himself disillusioned and referring back to the story of the tyrant Creon to understand the machinations of the American military/industrial complex. After defending the military as the last bastion of the ideals that made the USA great ('Think courage, endurance, integrity, judgement, justice, loyalty, discipline, knowledge.') and lamenting the fact that it is power-crazed politicians and profit-hungry business men who now dictate 'what we do and how we can do it' he is forced to confront his Captain with their own complicity.

We're in Kalyug, Captain. It's the age of Creon. 'Cept that he's here, there and everywhere. He's the government and the corporations and everything else that matters, and he's totally faceless. He's a machine, a system, he has his own logic, and once you're part of that, it doesn't really matter if you're a grunt or a general: you're trapped in a conveyor belt of death and destruction. And that's the saddest thing. The saddest thing is that we're part of Creon. We're all compromised and there's nothing we can do about it. It's like losing your virginity. You can't get it back once it's gone.

Frobenius also met his wife whilst working on a production of Antigone at university and we get flashes back to this relationship which is now destroyed by his repeated tours and what she sees as the unsurmountable changes that he has undergone. These flashbacks are something of a feature of the novel and they risk becoming repetitive, especially when they are of the 'and it was all a dream' variety (although to be fair this technique also helps to get something of the visionary-exhaustion the soldiers suffer across to the reader). Where it does work well is in the chapter dedicated to First Sergeant Whalen. He reminisces of home and images from there and the battlefield meld together seamlessly as when the music that their Antigone plays one night in the desert reminds him of his girl at home.

Just before I reach the bend round which I'll catch my first sight of the houseboat, I hear Camille playing her twelve-string guitar. I rest my oar and sit there with my head bowed, listening to the long notes thrumming over the water. It's the sweetest sound I've ever heard, and it fills my soul. The war falls away and all the fighting and the dying seem very far off. I hold on to the moments for as long as I can. Eventually the music stops, but I continue to sit there, lost in its spell. Nothing stirs, and no one seems to want to be the first to break the silence. In all my years with the Company, I've never seen the men remain so still and for such a long period of time. Long moments pass before they begin to drift away one by one without a sound, until I finally look up and realize that I'm the only one left. The bright band of the Milky Way is like a luminous river across the sky. The night is cold and crystalline, and there's a frigid wind blowing down from the mountains....This haunted land is so completely different to where I'm from that, even after multiple tours of duty, I'm still not clear about who these people are and what they really want.

That final confusion is all over this novel. Most of the soldiers have little knowledge about different tribes, languages or cultures; to them everyone is Taliban and therefore a threat (it is the medic who notices the black turban worn by their prize casualty that marks him as Sayyid, a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad). Even their interpreter (whose chapter is tellingly named after Antigone's sister Ismene) comes from an entirely different culture to the woman whose words he translates and as I mentioned has his own axe to grind with the Taliban that sees him supporting his employers wholeheartedly. A corrupt Afghan government that many in the country don't support, tribal factions, differences of opinion and operation within the overseeing military; it is a situation dominated by confusion and conflict with many innocent and ignorant people caught up in the dangerous front-line. Roy-Bhattacharya shows himself adept with descriptive prose and the build-up to the fire-fight is brilliantly realised. His dialogue is often filled with points of view and part of me wondered if it might be better suited to a decent television treatment of the subject. Also always lurking in my mind was the thought that despite the hard work that has clearly gone into this novel, transposing the story of Antigone to a modern conflict, the same effect and insight might have been achieved simply through a well-directed performance of Sophocles' original play that utilised the Afghan conflict for its design and focus. Greek tragedies, like the plays of Shakespeare, have been used time and again to illuminate modern conflicts and feuds, that is the power of plays with such universal themes. As Frobenius said, when it comes to the theatre of war, the observations of thousands of years ago are as relevant today as they were back then.


Max Cairnduff 20 June 2012 at 10:07  

Agh, just lost my comment.

Oh well.

I've worked with a fair few army officers oddly enough, and the idea of one of them being a classicist doesn't seem at all unlikely to me. Perfectly credible.

That said, I do wonder what the book leaves me as reader to do. The woman is the victim of a drone attack on civilians, which while extremely common (and therefore also utterly credible) makes her situation pretty unambiguous in narrative terms. The speech in the first quote too leaves me with nothing to do at my end, no need for me to bring my own perceptions and interpretations to the narrative. The Greeks were not so unsubtle.

At the end it sounded to me like you were spot on when you said this would make a great TV drama or reinterpretation of a stage production of Antigone, but less so a novel.

William Rycroft 20 June 2012 at 11:03  

Yes, when I said 'unlikely' I meant really that the book shows how different he is to all the other soldiers around him. I agree he's perfectly credible.

Interested by your feelings about the writing doing all the work for the reader. That's the risk I think if you have chapters dedicated to each character, each representing a distinct viewpoint. I think you've rather perceptively hit on a flaw there.

There is a production of Antigone at the National at the moment, getting great reviews, which updates the setting to a 1940's newsroom I believe. Keep the Greek I say, it will always be relevant with the right approach.

Max Cairnduff 20 June 2012 at 12:39  

Greek theatre remains relevant as long as we remain human, which is likely for a while yet.

I'd missed that Antigone, must see if there are tickets. Saw Henry V at the Globe last night. Amazing venue.

Jenny,  23 June 2012 at 21:20  

I am currently about half way through this novel, and really enjoying it. Your review is very interesting and insightful, and I think your acting background might contribute a great deal to this. Your ability to appreciate books from a visual as well as narrative perspective seems to lend a fresh dimension to the reading experience.

I really like the multiple narrative technique, which reminds me, more than anything, of Catch 22 which has been my favourite war novel for many years.

The Antigone analogy has been very well dealt with I think, at once subtly introduced, but ever present, and the Greek tragic theme is very poignant.

Thank you very much for bringing this novel to my attention.

William Rycroft 1 July 2012 at 08:00  

The Globe certainly is amazing isn't it Max. That 'wooden O' as mentioned in Henry V itself. In fact it's so good as a venue that productions have to work quite hard to stop you from just looking around.

William Rycroft 1 July 2012 at 08:01  

Thank you for the kind comment Jenny, glad to hear you're enjoying the novel so much. I hope the second half continues to please you.

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