Translated from Norwegian by Don Bartlett
When Hogarth Press asked Jo Nesbo if he would take part in their rewritings of Shakespearean classics, his immediate response was “Only if I can have Macbeth.” His wish was granted, and the resulting work is a dark, brooding tour de force, an inspired reworking of Shakespeare’s examination of the corrupting force of power.
Speaking at the Edinburgh Book Festival, Nesbo told of the many politicians with whom he has discussed this issue. Does power corrupt? Does absolute power corrupt absolutely? Of course, they all replied. But not in my case! Well, it’s certainly true of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and Nesbo’s too. But Nesbo drew a startling analogy with the Bible’s King David. In his fight against Goliath, David is the good guy. But his adultery with Bathsheba results in him sending her unsuspecting husband to his death. Quite rightly we struggle to find excuses for him. It’s painful when our hero is caught on the wrong side. So too with Macbeth.
I need to add here that David repents, so his reputation can be rehabilitated. Macbeth is an entirely different proposition altogether.
Firstly the setting: Nesbo calls it Fife, but really it’s an amalgam of locational influences: Newcastle as in Get Carter – an industrialised city with drugs and a hideous microclimate (gloomy, grey, and wet). You might think this is the Scottish climate, but Nesbo was thinking of Bergen, which he assured the audience is even worse! It’s a dangerous place, reminiscence of the Manhattan of The Basketball Diaries. Unsafe to walk around, yet retaining a village feel. Everyone knows everyone else. The place has lost its industry, and the only people making money are the drug lords, of which Hecate is king-pin, and the casino owners (enter Macbeth’s lover, Lady).
As for the police force. The in-fighting is as fierce as that between the drug gangs and the casinos, and the man in the top job, Duncan, is there only because he turns a blind eye now and again, Macbeth is the head of the SWAT unit, a man of the street, a cleaned-up junkie, the man with a vision and a lover with ambition …You know how the plot goes. As Nesbo said, Shakespeare had already written his first draft. All he had to do was transpose and modernise the details.
He did try to change it. He wanted to remove the 3 witches. What place do they have in a crime novel set in the 1970’s? But the novel wouldn’t work without them. So they became Hecate’s lackeys. He has added complex backstories, and turned Duff (no Mc) into a womanising toerag of a husband. There are some superb set pieces, such as the ambush of Banquo. Macbeth’s relapse into drug use – ostensibly to quieten his guilty conscience – both exacerbates his paranoia and provides a rational explanation for his haunting by Banquo. The key question though is is that enough to excuse him?
“What is pure evil?,” mused Nesbo. “Is it just the absence of good?” On that basis, Macbeth has crossed the rubicon. The callousness, brutality and scale of his crimes is astonishing. No details to spoil the effect here, but there is no repentance. He is no David,
One final point. “My generation of writers have seen more movies than have read books,” said Nesbo. “And my writing is influenced by the rhythm of the movies.” So there is the juxtaposition of closed room scenes with those set in (albeit very gloomy) daylight. Also frequent zooming from a wide-angle view to specific detail and scenes which burn themselves onto the retina. I have no doubt that Nesbo’s Scottish Book (although he refuses to call it that) will be filmed at some point. Will I be in the queue to see it? Not sure. The power of Nesbo’s storytelling and my own imagination may well suffice.