Books

‘Antigone for the Ages,’ You Say? Here’s Just the Novel We Need Now

Sophocles’s play, Antigone, written around 441 B.C., is the third play in the Oedipus Trilogy. The title character is the daughter of King Oedipus and his ill-fated marriage to his mother, Jocasta. The play opens in the aftermath of an enormous battle – a fratricidal war where one of Antigone’s brothers, Polyneices, has led an army against King Creon of Thebes, whose army was led by Antigone’s other brother, Eteocles.

Both men now lay dead and, in an act of vengeance against the rebels, Creon has decreed that those men who took up arms against him cannot be accorded any funerary rites or burial. Rather, they are to be left to rot in the heat of the sun, their decomposing bodies to become carrion for jackals and vultures. Furthermore, he has decreed that no human hands may touch the bodies; to do so will warrant severe punishment.

As the play opens, Antigone is arguing with her sister, Ismene. Antigone’s heart cannot bear the idea that her brother’s soul will not be able to complete its journey to Hades, and that it is her obligation as his sister to tend to his body. Ismene is also troubled, but she feels that despite the great wrong done to her brother by Creon, she cannot break the civil law. Antigone will not accept Creon’s law, telling her, “I owe a longer allegiance to the dead than to the living: in that world I shall abide forever.” She argues that heaven’s law and her personal ethics derived from such, demand that she disobey laws made by men.

She breaks the law and is brought before Creon to answer for her crimes. He insists that “disobedience is the worst of evils.”

She tells him that she doesn’t believe “thy decrees were of such force, that a mortal could override the unwritten and unfailing statutes of heaven.”

The central conflict at the heart of Antigone is one that has played itself out many times in history in the 2,500 years since its first performance. If the citizen is confronted with state injustice, what is their obligation? Are we called to submit to the rule of law, or are we required to resist and to do what is right?

Sophocles has presented this dilemma to the audience in such a way that our natural sympathies lie with Antigone. Creon has overstepped his boundaries as a ruler, and, as an audience, we are brought to feel that not only is Antigone right to defy Creon, but if we were to find ourselves in a similar position, our actions should be clear to us.

In Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie has taken the themes of Antigone and transferred them to modern-day Great Britain. The book, which has been placed on the long list for the 2017 Booker Prize, is a brilliant interpretation of Sophocles. Shamsie presents us with Karamat Lone, the British Home Secretary, an Englishman of Pakistani descent, who has gained a reputation for being “tough on terrorism.” He has embraced the values of the United Kingdom, and often gives speeches to British persons of the Muslim faith that they should give up their traditions that set them apart from their non-Muslim neighbors.

Shamsie breaks the narrative up into several sections, unfolding the plot through the perspectives of Lone and of two sisters – Isma and Aneeka – who are also Pakistani-born Londoners. Isma has gone off to America to be a graduate student, while Aneeka is a law student in the U.K. The lives of these three characters will intersect and interact over the actions of two young men: Parvaiz and Eamonn. The same questions put to the audience in Antigone will re-emerge for the readers of Home Fire.

If you believe that the actions of one’s government are a violation of your personal moral code – which you believe to be a reflection of true justice – what obligation do you have to resist or obey? As a culture, we have a tendency to treat such questions as academic. After all, no one is preventing us from carrying out our customary funerary rites.

But both Sophocles and Shamsie were aware that such specific circumstances are synecdoche for much greater acts. For example, it does not take much imagination to transfer the question of the disposal of the dead to other issues of the human body – contraceptives, abortion, matters of sexuality and gender, matters of skin pigment and racial distinctions – to see how civic laws made regarding the body may have enormous impacts on individual rights.

The unspoken social contract in our nation presents the expectation that we obey our nation’s laws – but also presents the expectation that we citizens resist a tyrannical government. We ask ourselves what we would have done in Nazi Germany in 1933 without acknowledging that not all tyrannies declare themselves with a goose-step and a straight-arm salute. Sometimes they begin with rumors, perhaps, for example, that because we have to fear that terrorists live among us, it is required that neighbor spy on neighbor, or that we give up a little freedom in order to have a little safety.

Home Fire is a brilliant piece of work. Shamsie has developed characters to whom readers are bound to feel an emotional attachment, so that as the story moves toward its explosive conclusion, the stakes will feel like much more than rhetorical exercises.

Shamsie has presented readers with a mirror; those who come to this stunning novel should not be surprised at the troubled reflections they face.