It’s fair to say that most stories are never as straightforward as they might initially seem, and we seem to be living in a heyday of readapted and reimagined stories from antiquity, with a focus on revealing new perspectives and unleashing unheard, or even silenced, voices. Inevitably, the female voice is now often placed centre stage. In I, Antigone, Carlo Gébler reimagines the infamous story of Oedipus, as told with distance and time by his daughter Antigone after her father’s death. In framing the novel this way, the question immediately arises of how a person’s identity is often wrapped up in the stories that are, or perhaps even worse the stories that aren’t, told about them. Oedipus’ story is, put simply, that of a man who fulfilled prophecy by killing his father and marrying his mother; Gébler’s novel explores the novel from a new perspective, fundamentally exploring the humanity at the centre of a tragedy which was predicted, and yet still came to pass.
A strong theme running throughout the story is the show of power wielded by the rich and powerful against the poor and the powerless, in context of a time when it was believed that the gods were even more powerful again, deciding the fates of all, thus creating a deeply hierarchical world where, in the end, it seems no one really fully has control over their own fate; a question which is central to the story of Oedipus, both in the original and in Gébler’s novel. Also explored is the issue of how doing nothing at all can be as bad as doing the wrong thing, how not speaking up can have as much impact as doing something unfavourable, and this dichotomy between social and ethical passivity and action remains at the forefront of a lot of discourse today.
Through an omniscient narrative style displaying great introspection and train of thought, Gébler has really developed these characters from long ago and breathed great life into them. Great care is taken to reveal inner aspects and thoughts of each of the key characters to the reader as the novel unfolds and we come to see how, while the better characters are plagued by more thoughtful, moral quandaries, the more narcissistic characters are plagued with egocentric thoughts; they worry not so much about the consequences of their actions, but whether or not they will get away with them and how they can plot things to their own best advantage.
This is luxurious writing that ebbs and flows, with gorgeous rhythms and sounds particularly in the opening and closing chapters; but, by the same token, this is a story from mythology and with that comes violence and cruelty, captured in often blunt and even matter-of-fact fashion. The conversational language in the novel is, at first, surprisingly casual but this is not the first time Gébler has adapted classical literature for modern readership and, in a way, this serves to draw this story out of antiquity, drawing a thread through history and showing how the central themes are as relevant now as they were back then to the complex issue of what it is to be human.
This novel opens up an abundance of moral and philosophical conversations, including the questions of doing the ‘right’ thing in the moment, even if we know there will be dire consequences, versus doing a terrible thing at the time if we know it will save lives in the future; the chain of cause and effect through generations and the cyclical nature of history; the complex question of free will and what it really means to be free; or how we can possibly come to accept the things over which we have no control.
This was an enjoyable and thought-provoking read, and an interesting take on a universally known classical tragedy.
I, Antigone was published by New Island in 2021.
Carlo Gébler has worked as a prison and university teacher for many years. He is a novelist, biographer, playwright, memoirist, critic and occasional broadcaster. His novels include The Cure, How to Murder a Man, The Dead Eight and The Innocent of Falkland Road. He also worked with Patrick Maguire (of the Maguire Seven) on his memoir My Father’s Watch. He has considerable experience adapting classical literature for a modern readership, while maintaining, even enhancing, the integrity of the original. His 2019 retelling of Aesop’s Fables, illustrated by Gavin Weston, was published by New Island and Head of Zeus. His most recent book-length work was Tales We Tell Ourselves: A Selection from the Decameron (2020). He is a member of Aosdána. He is married with five children and lives in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland.