A few weeks ago I mentioned that I had the urge to return to my classicist roots, well genes if such things are in the blood which I feel they might be, and was working out how to do it. I plumped for the option of heading to a retelling by a favourite author and whilst I had Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad I decided to go for one I didn’t own by another author I love dearly too. Any excuse for a new book, I can’t lie. This was a book I had no idea existed until I saw Jen Campbell mention a while back, when doing a video on Ali Smith’s works. It was The Story of Antigone. So I promptly bought a copy and proceeded to read it in one big wonderful gulp one night after work. (I so need more books I can do that with, it’s quite the feeling to come home from work and somehow devour a whole book!)
Ali Smith sets herself no easy challenge in adapting the story of Antigone for a new audience, which this book is part of an initiative to do, because it is both complex and part of a the greek myths which tend to have glimmers of what could be bigger stories within the one epic. Antigone, a young Theban princess, has not long lost her father (King Oedipus) and now her brother Polynices has just been killed in battle. Polynices has been declared a traitor by the new King, King Creon, and so his body must remain outside, uncovered and open to the elements, to be eaten by crows. Should anyone dare to try and bury him they will be found and stoned to death. Funnily enough this is what Antigone wants to do, despite her sisters best efforts to beg her to leave Polynices and save themselves. Yet if you are facing death anyway what is there to lose?
In many ways the story of Antigone is actually a story that is really part of the story before it, and after it, if you know what I mean. I know you could say this of most books; however it is particularly so here. Many authors would struggle to set it up as a tale in its own right, though many have tried, Ali Smith seems to do this effortlessly. One of the instant ways in which she does this is to tell it through the voice (and eyes) of a crow. One of those crows that is probably going to get to chow down on Polynices at some point if Antigone doesn’t get there first.
This works brilliantly. Firstly, despite my disdain for talking animals in fiction, who doesn’t like a talking crow? By their nature crows are a little bit sinister and somewhat untrustworthy and unpredictable by nature. Therefore being the perfect sarcastic and unreliable narrator who will appeal to readers of all ages. The crow is also, obviously, not human which also adds a distance to the story that is unfolding below. This to me makes the story at once all the more macabre and gory, because every Greek myth tends to be and crows delight on the bloody bits, and also oddly all the less disturbing as it takes away the human fear of death (which this story is all about) yet observes the human emotion of grief and makes the human need for power and control seem a bit daft frankly. In Smith’s hands the crow really is the perfect narrator.
“So,” the crow said. “What happened then was this. First his mother/wife killed herself, didn’t she, for ‘shame’. For ‘scandal’. And what did King Oedipus do then, for goodness sake? He put his hands in his own head and he took out his own eyes! And off he went, wandering the world like an old tramp, not a king at all. Typical still-alive stuff. His two sons. The big brothers of those two girls we just saw arguing, decided they’d share being king instead. The guess what happened? Go on. Guess.”
What I also really loved about crow and his voice (apart from the very witty interview he gives Ali Smith at the end about why she wrote the book, very meta and very entertaining) is that you are completely captivated. You also leave The Story of Antigone wanting to read a whole heap more around it. The way crow introduces the context of the story inside the story before and the story after (oh here I go again, making it sound all complicated unintentionally) hints at these othetr wonderful tales and leaves you desperate for more, as you can see above. I wanted crows version of the tale of Oedipus in more detail, maybe Ali Smith could just come back and adapt them all in a series all of her own?
Before I round off I do need to mention the gorgeous illustrations throughout by Laura Paoletti. As Smith does with the text, Paoletti again takes the old elements of the ancient classic and gives it a modern twist. I felt the pictures were at once contemporary and yet harked back to the wall paintings that you see when visiting a collection of Greek works in a museum or adorning the walls of a Greek ruin where they have survived. I thought this was a fantastic and apt addition to the book.
The Story of Antigone was the perfect way back into the world of the ancient classics and myths and legends that I have been hankering after of late. It has left me most keen to go away and find more adaptations but also head back to the real thing. My mother, who is a classicist and who I saw last weekend, has told me I need to seek out a really good translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses so if any of you know of a great edition of that please let me know. A new translation of The Iliad has arrived this week, so I am wondering if may that is where I will head next, though it does look rather daunting. What do you think, just dive in? I also really want to try the other Pushkin ‘Save the Story‘ titles too, The Story of Gilgamesh by Yiyun Li particularly appeals.