By Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya. Hogarth, 2012. 304 pages. $25. ISBN: 978-0-307-95589-0.
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 (Cocteau, Anouilh, Brecht) adapted it; Carl Orff composed an operatic score for it; critic George Steiner, tracing its motif through literature, philosophy, film, ballet, and the plastic arts, called it “one of the enduring and canonic acts in the history of our philosophic, literary, and political consciousness, [one of] a handful of ancient Greek myths [that] continue 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 novel The Watch speaks to Steiner’s question, transposing the Antigone motif to spartan, present-day Kandahar, a setting as barren as that of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Nizam, a disabled Pashtun woman, pushes her cart toward an American military base, where she seeks permission to bury her brother. Ever the cynosure of soldiers’ eyes, she elicits their courtesy, empathy, pity, ethnocentrism, antipathy, and “inordinate suspension of belief.” Narrated entirely in the present tense, so as to heighten the suspense and displacement, The Watch resists linear storytelling, using tracking shots to move between Nizam’s story and the soldiers’ instead. Is Nizam a dutiful sister, or a “perfect Trojan horse”? Was her brother “a terrorist…a Prince of the Mountains…some heavy Taliban dude” or “a Pashtun hero” and “freedom fighter”? The medic tries to argue for his innocence and inspire cultural sensitivity in these men (“not all black turbans are the same. The Taliban loop theirs differently.”) The Tajik interpreter does, too, but with bitterness: “each one [of the Taliban] has a different history of sin, of pillage and murder,” he explains.
The timelessness of “Antigone” is thematic, pitting female determination and the spirit of the law against male authority and casuistry, religion and family against political loyalty. It celebrates the militant determination of a Mother Courage-like martyr (the name Antigone means “in place of a mother.”)
The Watch marries these established themes with a novelty of voice, focus, and narrative effect. With controlled lyricism, Roy-Bhattacharya portrays Nizam as a reason for the soldiers to look inward, to weigh their duty to abide by military orders against their sympathy for her. When they see her, their present recedes; they’re steeped in memories of the women they loved and left behind in Maine, Putnam County, and New Orleans. Their return to the moment is almost imperceptible, pivoting on the slightest sound—“a single muzzle flash,” a lieutenant’s murmur of a phrase from Antigone, or the strumming of a twelve-string lute.
Nizam becomes a mirror for their own strength and fragility, her taut, elegant defenses showing the very grace, dignity, and patriotism they champion. Like her, they “need a place to bury the graveyard that war becomes when the dreams of glory dissipate.” And so this brave, visceral novel penetrates cultural and geographical distinctions, political allegiances, and the fate they determine, deftly unveiling the similar emotions beneath.
This piece was published in the Books section of NPR.org here.