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Sing of the new invasion

Ralph Fiennes’s upcoming film adaptation of Shakespeare’s
Coriolanus shows its versatility – and p

The way to test a great work of art is to ask how it survives decontextualisation, transposition into a new context. One good definition of a classic is that it functions like the eyes of God in an Orthodox icon: no matter where you stand in the room, they seem to be looking at you. For instance, by far the best cinema version of a Dostoevsky novel is Akira Kurosawa's The Idiot, which is set in Japan after the Second World War with Myshkin played as a returning soldier. The point is not simply that we are dealing with an eternal conflict that appears in all societies but that, with each new context, a classic work of art seems to address the very specific qualities of that epoch.

There is a long history of such successful transpositions of Shakespeare: to mention just a few modern film versions, Othello in a contemporary jazz club (Basil Dearden's All Night Long, 1962); Richard III in an imagined fascist UK of the 1930s (Richard Loncraine, 1995); Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet, set in Venice Beach, California (1996); Hamlet in corporate New York (Michael Almereyda, 2000).

Shakespeare's Coriolanus poses a special chal­lenge to recontextualisation: the play is so exclusively focused on its hero's militaristic, aristocratic pride and contempt for ordinary people that one can easily see why, after the German defeat in 1945, the Allied occupying power prohibited its performance. Indeed, the play seems to offer a rather narrow interpretative choice. What are the alternatives to staging the play the way it is, surrendering to its anti-democratic allure?

For his forthcoming film adaptation, Ralph Fiennes (with the writer John Logan) has done the impossible, confirming in the process T S Eliot's claim that Coriolanus is superior to Hamlet. He has fully broken out of the closed circle of interpretative options and presented Coriolanus not as a fanatical anti-democrat but as a figure of the radical left.

Fiennes's first move was to change the play's geopolitical co-ordinates. Rome is now a contemporary colonial city state in crisis and the Volscians are leftist guerrilla rebels, organised in what, today, we would call a "rogue state". The effects of this are felt in many luminous details, such as the decision to present the border between the territory held by the Roman army and the one held by the rebels as an access ramp on a highway, a kind of guerrilla checkpoint. (One can dream further here: how about fully exploiting the film having been shot in Serbia by making Belgrade the "city that called itself Rome", imagining the Volscians as Albanians from Kosovo and Coriolanus as a Serb general who changes sides to join the Albanians?)

Gerard Butler was an excellent choice for the role of Aufidius, the Volscian leader and opponent of Caius Martius (who is later renamed Coriolanus). Butler's biggest hit was Zack Snyder's 300, in which he was cast as Leonidas, king of the Spartans. In both films, he plays more or less the same role: the warrior leader of a rogue state fighting a mighty empire. Snyder's film, the saga of the 300 Spartan soldiers who sacrificed themselves at Thermopylae in an effort to halt the invasion of Xerxes's Persian army, was attacked as the worst kind of patriotic militarism, with clear allusions to the recent tensions with Iran and events in Iraq. However, it can be defended against such accusations - it is the story of a small, poor country (Greece) invaded by the army of a much larger state (Persia). When the last surviving Spartans and Leonidas are killed by volley after volley of arrows, are they not in a way being bombed to death by techno-soldiers operating sophisticated weapons from a safe distance, like US troops today, who launch missiles from warships moored in the Persian Gulf?

Attempting to convince Leonidas to accept Persian domination, Xerxes promises him peace and sensual pleasures if he joins the new global empire. All he asks of him is that he kneel down in recognition of Persian supremacy. If the Spartans do this, they will be given authority over the whole of Greece. Is this not what Ronald Reagan demanded from the Sandinista government in Nicaragua in the 1980s?

The Spartans, with their discipline and spirit of sacrifice, resemble the Taliban defending Afghanistan against US occupation (or the elite unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, ready to sacrifice itself in the event of an American invasion). Perceptive historians have already noted this parallel. Here, for instance, is the blurb for Tom Holland's book Persian Fire: "In the 5th century BC, a global superpower was determined to bring truth and order to what it regarded as two terrorist states. The superpower was Persia . . . incomparably rich in ambition, gold and men. The terrorist states were Athens and Sparta, eccentric cities in a poor and mountainous backwater: Greece."

A programmatic statement towards the end of 300 defines the Greeks' agenda as being "against the reign of mystique and tyranny, towards the bright future". This sounds like an elementary Enlightenment programme - with a communist twist. Recall also that, at the beginning of the film, Leonidas rejects outright the message of the corrupt "oracles", according to whom the gods forbid the military expedition to stop the Persians. We learn later that the oracles who were allegedly receiving the divine messages in ecstatic trances were, in effect, paid by the Persians, like the Tibetan "oracle" who, in 1959, delivered to the Dalai Lama the message to leave Tibet and who was, it turned out, on the payroll of the CIA.

What about the apparent absurdity of the ideas of dignity, freedom and reason being sustained by extreme military discipline, including the practice of discarding weak children? This apparent absurdity is just the price of freedom - "Freedom is not free," as it is said in the film. Freedom is not something given, but rather is regained through a hard struggle in which one should be ready to risk everything. The ruthless military discipline of the Spartans is not just the opposite of Athenian "liberal democracy"; it is its inherent condition and lays the foundation for it.

True freedom is not freedom of choice made from a safe distance; it is not like choosing between a strawberry cake or a chocolate cake. True freedom overlaps with necessity - one makes a free choice when one's choice puts at stake one's very existence. One does it because one cannot do otherwise. When one's country is under foreign occupation and one is called by a resistance leader to join the fight against the occupiers, it is phrased not as, "You are free to choose," but, "Can't you see that this is the only thing you can do if you want to retain your dignity?" No wonder all early modern egalitarian radicals, from Rousseau to the Jacobins, admired the Spartans and imagined republican France as a new Sparta. There is an emancipatory core in the Spartan spirit of military discipline that survives once you subtract all the historical paraphernalia of Spartan class rule - the ruthless exploitation of slaves, and so on. No wonder Trotsky described the Soviet Union in the difficult years of "war communism" as a "proletarian Sparta".

Soldiers are not bad per se but soldiers mobilised by nationalist poetry are. There is no ethnic cleansing without poetry. Why? Because we live in an era that perceives itself as post-ideological. Given that great public causes no longer have the force to mobilise people for mass violence, a larger sacred cause is needed, one that makes petty individual concerns about killing seem trivial.

Religion fits this role perfectly, and so does ethnic belonging. There are instances of pathological atheists being capable of committing mass murder just for pleasure but they are rare exceptions. The masses need to be anaesthetised against their elementary sensitivity to the suffering of others and, for this, a sacred cause is needed. Religious ideologues claim that, whether its dogmas are true or not, religion can make otherwise bad people do some good. Yet, as Steven Weinberg has argued, without religion, good people would have been doing good things and bad people bad things, but only religion can make good people do bad.

Plato's reputation suffers because of his claim that poets should be thrown out of the city. It was rather sensible advice, however, at least when judged from the vantage point of the post-Yugoslav experience, in which ethnic cleansing was prepared by the dangerous dreams of poets. True, Slobodan Milosevic "manipulated" nationalist passions but it was the poets who provided him with the raw material that lent itself to manipulation. They - the sincere poets, not the corrupted politicians - were at the origin of it all when, back in the 1970s and early 1980s, they started to sow the seeds of aggressive nationalism not only in Serbia but also in other Yugoslav republics.

Instead of the military-industrial complex, we in post-Yugoslavia had the military-poetic complex, personified by Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. In The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel mentions the "silent weaving of the spirit", the underground work of changing the ideological co-ordinates, mostly invisible to the public eye, which then explodes, taking everyone by surprise. This is what was going on in Yugoslavia in the 1970s and 1980s, so that when things exploded in the late 1980s, it was already too late: the old ideological consensus was thoroughly putrid and it collapsed. Yugoslavia was like the proverbial cat in the cartoon that falls only after he looks down and becomes aware that there is no firm ground beneath his feet. Milosevic forced us all to look over the edge of the precipice.

To dispel the illusion that the military-poetic complex is a Balkan speciality, one should mention Hassan Ngeze, the Karadzic of Rwanda who, through his newspaper Kangura, spread anti-Tutsi hatred. And, discussing the rise of Nazism in Germany, the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus quipped that Germany, a country of Dichter und Denker (poets and thinkers), had become a country of Richter und Henker (judges and executioners). Perhaps such a reversal should not startle us too much.

This brings us back to Coriolanus. Who is the poet there? Before Caius Martius takes the stage, it is Menenius Agrippa, who pacifies the furious crowd demanding grain. Like Odysseus in Troilus and Cressida, Menenius is the ideologist par excellence, offering a poetic metaphor to justify social hierarchy (in this case, the rule of the senate). In the best corporatist tradition, the metaphor is that of a human body. Here is how Plutarch, in his Life of Coriolanus, relates the story, first reported by Livy:

It once happened . . . that all the other members of a man mutinied against the stomach, which they accused as the only idle, uncontributing part of the whole body, while the rest were put to hardships and the expense of much labour to supply and minister to its appetites. The stomach, however, merely ridiculed the silliness of the members, who appeared not to be aware that the stomach certainly does receive the general nourishment but only to return it again and redistribute it among the rest. Such is the case . . . ye citizens, between you and the senate. The counsels and plans that are there duly digested convey and secure to all of you your proper benefit and support.

Coriolanus not only rebels against the Roman body politic but abandons his body by going into exile. Is Coriolanus then really against the people? Which people? The "plebeians", represented by the tribunes Brutus and Sicinius, are not exploited workers but rather a lumpen proletarian mob, a rabble fed by the state. The two tribunes are proto-fascist manipulators - to quote Kane (the citizen from Orson Welles's film), they speak for the poor, ordinary people so that the poor, ordinary people would not speak for themselves. If one wants to look for the "people", they are to be found among the Volscians. Look at how Fiennes depicts their capital: as a modest city in liberated territory, in which Aufidius and his comrades, clad in the uniforms of guerrilla fighters, mix freely with ordinary people in an atmosphere of relaxed festivity. All this is in stark contrast to the stiff formality of Rome.

So, yes, Coriolanus is a killing machine, a "perfect soldier", but he has no fixed class allegiance and can easily put himself at the service of the oppressed. As Che Guevara put it: "Hatred is an element of struggle; relentless hatred of the enemy that impels us over and beyond the natural limitations of man and transforms us into effective, violent, selective and cold killing machines. Our soldiers must be thus; a people without hatred cannot vanquish a brutal enemy."

There are two scenes in the film that provide a clue for such a reading. When, after his violent outburst in the senate, Coriolanus leaves the large hall, slamming the doors behind him, he finds himself alone in the silence of a long corridor and confronted by an elderly cleaning man. The two exchange glances in a moment of quiet solidarity, as if only the cleaner can see who Coriolanus is now. The other scene is a long depiction of his voyage into exile, done in road movie style, with Coriolanus as a lone rambler, anonymous among ordinary people. It is as if Coriolanus, obviously out of place in the Roman hierarchy, only now becomes what he is and gains his freedom.

The only thing that he can do is to join the enemy Volscians. He does not join them solely in order to take revenge on Rome. He joins them because he belongs there. It is only among the Volscian fighters that he can be what he is. Coriolanus's pride is authentic, but it has no place in imperial Rome. It can thrive only among the guerrilla fighters.

In joining the Volscians, Coriolanus does not betray Rome out of a sense of petty resentment. He regains his integrity. His only act of betrayal occurs at the end of the drama when, instead of leading the Volscian army towards Rome, he organises a peace treaty, succumbing to the pressure of his mother, the true figure of superego evil. This is why he returns to the Volscians, fully aware of what awaits him there - well-deserved punishment for his betrayal.

And this is why Fiennes's Coriolanus is like the eyes of God or a saint in an Orthodox icon: without changing a word in Shakespeare's play, the film looks squarely at us, at our predicament today, offering us the figure of the radical freedom fighter.

Slavoj Žižek's most recent book is "Living in the End Times" (Verso, £12.99)

“Coriolanus" (certificate 15) will be released in the UK on 20 January

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Unholy war

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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