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Antigonick by Anne Carson - review

Such a devoted sister

Antigonick by Anne Carson (illustrated by Bianca Stone), Bloodaxe, 112pp, £15

It’s ironic that the Canadian poet, academic and translator Anne Carson has chosen to concentrate her formidable attentions on dead languages. It’s hard to think of a writer more committed to unspringing language from habitual usage, wrenching words back into an almost unnerving intensity. Unlike more cautious translators, she also likes to play with, not resolve, the problems of fragmentation associated with her period – an interest in absence that extends powerfully to her own hybrid work.

In the prickly, tender Autobiography of Red, she refashioned the myth of Geryon and the tenth labour of Heracles into a modern gay love story that works riddlingly around questions of possession, loss and desire. Her translation of Sappho, If Not, Winter, flaunts the gaps in the text, making eerie art out of the missing as well as the extant. And in her last publication, Nox, she created an extraordinary mourning document: a book in a box, which used Catullus’s “Poem 101” as the foundation for building a memorial of words and images to her dead brother.

There’s a natural kinship between the heat of that work and Sophocles’s Antigone, a play that centres on a sister’s act of mourning and its horrific costs. Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta: mother and son who were also, through ignorance, husband and wife. In Carson’s version, her brothers, Eteokles and Polyneikes, have fought and died on opposite sides of the Theban civil war. The city’s new ruler, Kreon, has decreed that only Eteokles will receive burial, while Polyneikes will be left where he lies. Antigone cannot accept this and so she buries her brother herself, pouring dust and water on his body. In punishment, Kreon has her walled up in a cave, despite her eloquent defence and the pleadings of Haimon, his son and her husband-to-be. By the end of the play, both Antigone and Haimon have killed themselves, along with Eurydike, Kreon’s wife.

After Antigone has been taken away by the guards, the chorus usually runs through precedents to the terrible punishment awaiting her. Instead, Carson furnishes them with strophe and antistrophe on the similarity between a Greek chorus and a lawyer, ending by concluding flatly, as Sophocles doesn’t: “It’s Friday afternoon/there goes Antigone to be buried alive/is there/any way/we can say/this is normal/. . . /no not really.” Likewise, when Eurydike, Kreon’s wife, enters the stage to give her single speech, she introduces herself as being “like poor Mrs Ramsay who died in a bracket of To the Lighthouse she’s the wife of the man whose moods tensify the world”.

These discontinuities are enhanced by Bianca Stone’s distinctive, riddling images, printed on transparent paper, so the hand-lettered words beneath ghost through. Horses, chairs, reels of cotton, faceless humans and objects that resemble both gates and ladders reappear in ingenious combinations. Many seem to signify entrapment; all convey a profound unease.

Before Kreon sentences Antigone, they debate which is greater, natural or city law. Infuriated, Kreon brandishes an ugly phrase: “Enemy is always enemy alive or dead.” It’s not hard to see why a play so deeply concerned with war and individual morality might have remained in currency. Antigone has been so influential in western culture that in 1984 George Steiner was moved to compile Antigones, his examination of its representations in theatre, art and literature. Brecht had his Antigone perform with a door strapped to her back, while in The Burial at Thebes Seamus Heaney made sharp parallels with the Troubles.

But why the nick? Early on, Kreon appears in the “nick of time”. The phrase crops up again, gathering momentum. It also seems to be represented in Stone’s images of a figure passing through a cleft of rock. This is where Carson’s best work is staged: in the uncanny gateway between the temporal and the timeless; in the nick between the world of powerboats and the sublime, terrifying realm of the dead and the still lively gods.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Clegg the martyr

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis