Who would have thought that my personal prizelistee reading month would have led me to Sophocles? But with Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire the one must-read Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlistee in my TBR, it seemed rude not to read the original first.
And so began a fascinating themed read, starting with Sophocles’s Antigone, translated from Greek by Robert Fagles, followed The Children of Jocasta by Natalie Haynes, before finally reaching for Shamsie’s Home Fire.
Sophocles’s Antigone is set in Thebes, after the tragedy of Oedipus and his wife-mother, Jocasta, has played out. Oedipus’s two sons, embroiled on opposite sides of the civil war which resulted from the break-down of their power-sharing agreement, fight a duel which neither survives. King Creon ascends the throne and decrees that Eteocles will be buried with full honours, while Polyneices is declared a traitor and is to be left unburied. Oedipus’s daughter Antigone does not accept this, buries her brother herself, is caught and sentenced to be immured in a cave.
Reading the play I was struck by its accelerated timeline. The two brothers are dead, and Creon’s edict has been issued before the opening scene. Sophocles throws us straight into the conflict. Antigone’s rebellion is not just about family honour but about obeying the law of the gods, who demand the dead to be returned to them through burial. Creon’s edict defies that law, and when he sentences Antigone to death by immurement, he defies it again. Because “beneath the ground” is the realm of the dead. Not the living. He is in the wrong, judged by divine law. And yet as the head of state he must uphold civil law, regardless of the personal cost (which turns out to be considerable.) Antigone has natural right on her side. The paradox being that had she not committed her act of civic disobedience, the living may have lived happily ever after ( a relative term in ancient Thebes, but that is a different matter entirely.) But once she dignifies Polyneices’s corpse with funeral rites, “the tragedy is on” as Jean Anoiuilh says in his version. This is a Greek tragedy. Those involved must play their roles, the dye is cast and there is no averting that which is to come.
I may be a trifle unfair in my next statement, but the play did strike me as one, long, protracted argument between Antigone and Creon. It’s not by any means. It’s just that, on first reading, I got a little bored of all the arguing. And the lack of interior life and historical background. Basically I was missing the immersion that a novel provides.
No surprise then that I then picked up Natalie Haynes The Children of Jocasta, an ambitious retelling of not only Antigone but also of Sophocles’ Oedipus The King, a play written after Antigone, but preceding it in timeline. But Haynes didn’t want just to rehash the tragedies but to address the imbalance of the male dominated tales. In Oedipus The King, Jocasta is given only 120 lines, and, Antigone, although the title character, has significantly fewer lines than Creon. Her sister, Ismene, only has 60 lines! So in alternating narratives, Haynes tells the story from Jocasta’s POV in free indirect speech, while Ismene becomes a narrator in first person.
And yes, I was immersed into that ancient world and the interior world of the characters, feeling Jocasta’s pain, in particular. A young girl, forced to marry old King Laius to provide an heir, only to be separated from the child at birth because it is a boy, one foretold to kill his father. Her grief and mourning, not only at the child’s death, but at Laius’s abandonment of her. Her joy at her husband’s death, her becoming not only a queen in her own right, but a competent queen. Her absolute delight in her dreamboat 2nd husband, Oedipus, and her long-awaited happiness in her four children …. Her dreams all destined to be shattered by the fact that her second marriage, albeit unknowingly, is an incestuous one.
The fates, the dye, whatever you want to call it, there is no escape and I felt for Jocasta. Deeply. Haynes paints the transformation of Jocasta from little girl lost to competent self-sufficient woman so convincingly that her suicide when the unsubstantiated rumours break about her husband seems inconsistent. There has to be another motivation. There is. Whether Sophocles would approve is doubtful, but I did.
I’m not so sure about the innovations Haynes introduces into Ismene’s story (even if she draws on versions of the Antigone that differ substantially from Sophocles.) Timid, compliant Ismene becomes the spunky one; Eteocles the one not to be buried. Antigone is still incarcerated but survives her suicide attempt and becomes queen, taking immediate revenge on King Creon for his treachery. Because Haynes transforms him into the bad guy, a ruthless manipulator, whereas in Sophocles there are subtle shades of shadow and light in his make-up.
It’s here that Haynes feminist retelling, for all the page-turning intrigues and dangers of the Theban court, too tough to me to chew, but I liked the irony that power goes to Antigone’s head. I didn’t like her much in Sophocles. I like her even less in Haynes.
As for the contemporary Antigone in Shamsie’s Home Fire … well!
Firstly, let me say that Shamsie’s novel, centered on the British Muslim community, is absolutely inspired. Though perhaps I’d better revise cast names before continuing.
King Creon = The British Muslim Home Secretary
Haemon, Creon’s son and Antigone’s fiancé = Eamonn, the Home Secretary’s Son
Ismene = Isma, the elder daughter of a Muslim family, who has brought up her younger twins. Devout.
Polyneices = Parvaiz – Isma’s younger brother, who becomes radicalised, leaves the country to join ISIS
Antigone = Aneeka, Parvaiz’s twin sister. Independent, strong-willed, emancipated.
You can see from that list, the potential for a series of ideological clashes and a fertile space for Shamsie to explore contemporary issues and debates taking place in Britain today. Some of the questions raised: If you learn that one of your relatives has joined ISIS, do you inform the authorities, even if the potential cost is a rift in your own family? Isma does, and that is the price she pays. If you leave the country to join ISIS, have you rescinded your right to return – even as a corpse. Parvaiz. How hard would you fight for the repatriation of your dead relative? Aneeka.
You might think the answers to these questions are cut and dried, but could there ever be other factors that would make you reconsider? Shamsie’s narrative is designed to do just that, without shirking unpalatable realities. Divided into sections told from the varying characters’ points of view, we see behind the actions into the real motivations. And the face of betrayal is constantly being redrawn. Is it turning your relatives over to the authorities? Is it the cynical radicalisation of a young boy who has yet to find his place in society? Or is it the entrapment of the Home Secretary’s son in a lurid sexual affair with the intention of enlisting his aid in getting your brother home?
The older generation has its problems too. The Home Secretary has to walk a tightrope, with the impossible task of not offending the diverse communities he serves. And what he is to do when he discovers his son’s relationship with the sister of a known terrorist? This is also a neat mirroring of Creon’s dilemma, because in Sophocles he, at first tries to save his niece. And so the Home Secretary tries to save his son. But circumstances dictate otherwise. Another state becomes involved, the all-seeing press. And to confound it all, the relationship between Eamonn and Aneeka has grown into something more than lust. The danger in the modern world is that there is always someone or something willing to capitalise on any situation.
The dye is cast. The ball will roll right to the tragic and unforgettable end.
Shamsie’s novel is explosive in more ways than one.