Since it was first staged in Attica, Greece, 2,000 years ago, Sophocles' Antigone, the tragic tale of a princess sentenced to death for secretly burying her brother, an apparent traitor to their kingdom, has inspired many adaptations. European modernist playwrights Jean Cocteau, Jean Anouilh and Bertolt Brecht transformed it for the theater. Carl Orff wrote an opera based on it.
Critic George Steiner, tracing its themes through literature, philosophy, film and ballet, called it "one of the enduring and canonic acts in the history of our philosophic, literary, and political consciousness, [which] continue[s] to dominate, to give vital shape to our sense of self and of the world." Why is the Antigone story so enduring, so "immediate to the present?" he asked.
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya's third novel, The Watch, transposes Antigone to barren present-day Kandahar, a setting that recalls Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Like Brecht's Mother Courage, Nizam, a disabled Pashtun woman, pushes her cart toward an American military base, where she seeks permission to bury her brother Yusuf. The soldiers react to her with courtesy, pity, antipathy or an "inordinate suspension of belief." Is Nizam a dutiful sister or a "perfect Trojan horse"? Was Yusuf "a Pashtun hero" and "freedom fighter" or "a terrorist ... a Prince of the Mountains ... some heavy Taliban dude"?
An American medic argues for Yusuf's innocence and tries to inspire cultural awareness in these men ("not all black turbans are the same. The Taliban loop theirs differently").
Roy-Bhattacharya, whose last novel, The Storyteller of Marrakesh, was inspired by another historic text, One Thousand and One Nights, re-animates the timeless themes of Antigone — the pitting of female determination against male authority, the spirit of the law against the letter of the law.
While the tone of The Watch is familiar (Nizam's pain is narrated with the same emotional containment that moves viewers of Antigone), its setting breathes new life into the tale. Antigone takes place entirely in the kingdom of Thebes, home to the king and his chorus of male supporters. But The Watch is set in Afghanistan, and the male characters are American foreigners, trying to build camaraderie and adapt to their new surroundings while missing those they have left behind in Maine, Putnam County and New Orleans.
Some, like Lt. Nick Frobenius, are sensitive. Educated in the classics, Frobenius murmurs lines from Antigone even in the middle of a battle, and keeps a journal of poetic thoughts about the war, mostly addressed to his father. It is easier to empathize with them than with the homegrown, hidebound men of Thebes.
The narration of The Watch is entirely original, too. Unlike Antigone, a linear tale, The Watch keeps coming back to the moment when the soldiers first saw Nizam, cross-cutting between her story and theirs. The soldiers, interpreter and medic each have their own chapter; in many, the characters drift between dreams and reality, between delirium and consciousness, the slightest sound awakening them — "a single muzzle flash," a phrase from Antigone (the film version is being shown at the military base) or the strumming of a 12-string lute. Readers will feel as disoriented as the characters themselves, and will be sensitive to the displacement these men feel as they look inward and weigh their loyalty and duty to the military against their sympathy for Nizam.
As The Watch brings each of the male characters to life, their own strength and fragility mirror Nizam's. Cultural, geographical and political distinctions aside, her grace, dignity and taut defenses are much like theirs. As Frobenius writes in his journal, they all "need a place to bury the graveyard that war becomes when the dreams of glory dissipate." In exploring these similarities, this brave, visceral novel breaks new ground and does what previous versions of Antigone never have: It makes each character deeply humane, challenging the reader to sympathize with every one of them.