Classic Spotlight: Antigone in Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

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DISCLAIMER: I’ll try to keep this spoiler-free when it comes to Home Fire, though if you’ve read Antigone I guess you are sort of spoilt anyway. XD


I finished Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie yesterday, and it goes without saying that I really loved it. I love the story itself, but I also loved that it’s a modern retelling of the myth of Antigone, or more accurately Sophocles’ tragedy of the same name. While you can definitely read it on its own, I think the book is even better if you have read Antigone. It was interesting to see how Home Fire uses the plot and ideas from Antigone, and makes them into a completely new story.

Let me start with Antigone. The play takes place in Thebes, and it tells the story of Oedipus’ children. Oedipus’ family line is, in lack of a better word, cursed, because his father Laius had a son despite the fact that the gods have forbidden it. This led to the well-known story of Oedipus unknowingly killing his father and marrying his mother. Oedipus leaves behind two sons, Polyneices and Eteocles, and two daughters, Antigone and Ismene. Polyneices and Eteocles end up fighting for the throne, and kill each other in battle. That’s when their uncle, Creon, becomes the new king and decides to give Eteocles a proper burial, since he fought on the side of Thebes, but leave Polyneices to rot because he fought against Thebes. That’s when the play starts, and Antigone decides to bury her brother despite the orders of her uncle.

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Frederic Leighton, “Antigone

The main theme of Antigone is the opposition between the law, and doing what is right. Antigone goes against the law, but she claims that she’s following a more important law, the one of the gods, who want all people to be given a proper burial. She’s also loyal to her brother more than to any law of the state. The play also poses the question: if the law is unjust, should people break it?

In Home Fire, the story is more complex than that. The novel follows two sisters and a brother who are Muslims living in London. It deals with prejudice, religious fanaticism and family. And it also deals with laws and politics. The novel’s Creon in Karamat Lone, also known as “Lone Wolf”. Karamat Lone is the British Home Secretary, and on his way to the top he turned his back on his own people, and his own traditions. Well, in a way. Karamat Lone wanted to do the right thing, to help Muslims in Britain have better opportunities in life. But in his desire to make things better, Karamat takes a very strict, unyielding path. He calls for integration, but he doesn’t leave room for keeping the traditions. Once a fighter for equality and racial tolerance, he’s now a conservative in his own way. It’s especially interesting to see his point of view, when he realises that the ones attacking him are the people he thought were like him.

“…if someone had said he’d be the home secretary in a safe room while men prowled outside trying to kill him, he’d have known without asking that the men were neo-Nazi skinheads. But how dare they – how dare it be his people? After everything his generation did to make this country better for them, how dare they.”

Now what did the Creon of Home Fire do? Karamat Lone also decided to let the body of a young man rot, the body of Home Fire‘s Polynices – Parvais. Why? Because Parvais was a jihadi. And of course, Karamat is appalled by this, and he sees him as the main reason why Muslims are experiencing so much hatred. Which is a completely justified point of view. What he fails to realise is that the strict laws that are made to protect people from terrorism can sometimes create terrorists.

This is another instance in Home Fire when things are not that simple. Parvais’s father was a jihadi, and he and his sisters, Isma and Aneeka, barely know him. All they know is that he made their lives very hard. But when Farook, a friend of his father, comes into Parvais’ life, he paints him a completely different picture of the man he barely knew. He speaks of the torture Parvais’ father went though, and the great ideals he had. Parvais is aware that Muslims are treated with suspicion and prejudice, which is why he’s easily manipulated and leaves with Farook for Pakistan. It’s interesting how Shamsie in her own way uses the theme of the “cursed” family, in this case the son of a jihadi who becomes a jihadi himself. The media immediately treats Parvais’ case as “we should have seen it coming” and “of course he followed the footsteps of his father”. I also think that the press plays the role of the Choir in Greek tragedies, as it gives commentary and explains some events to the reader.

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Sébastien Norblin, “Antigone and Polyneices

Isma and Aneeka, Parvais’ sisters, reflect the characters of Ismene and Antigone. Isma doesn’t want to disobey the laws. She wants to live her life, and to make sure her siblings have a good future, too. She is the eldest child, Aneeka and Parvais are twins, and she took care of them after their mother died. Isma despises her father, and is aware that he’s to blame for the suffering and even the death of their mother. What he did causes her a lot of shame. Aneeka, on the other hand, has no opinion of her father. She was too young to see how much her mother had changed because of his actions, just as Parvais was, but unlike her brother, she never wanted to know more about him. She simply believes they are better off without him.

In Antigone, Ismene doesn’t want to have anything to do with Antigone’s plan, and she tries to persuade her sister not to anger Creon. Her character is much like Isma’s, but Isma gets much more attention that Ismene, and is a wonderful, kind character. Aneeka is very similar to Antigone. She’s bold, unyielding, and stubborn. She puts her loyalty to her brother first, loyalty to family before the loyalty to state.

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Antigone and Ismene

Home Fire has its own Haemon, too. Haemon is Antigone’s fiancée and Creon’s son, and Eamonn Lone is Karamat’s son. Both Haemon and Eamonn show the emotional side of their apparently emotionless fathers. I won’t reveal too much, but they share a similar destiny, and also show similar characteristics. I love how all of the characters follow not only a similar story, but they also have similar personalities to those in Antigone. While Haemon is just a side character in Antigone, Eamonn gets his own chapters and his point of view, which is very interesting because he’s a person of Muslim background, but was not raised as a Muslim, and he sees himself only as British. He’s even rejected by the British Muslims.

“Eamonn, that was his name. How they’d laughed in Wembley when the newspaper article accompanying the family picture revealed this detail, an Irish spelling to disguise a Muslim name – Ayman became Eamonn so that people would know the father had integrated.”

Nationality, and what it means to be a citizen of a country is also a prominent theme in Home Fire, which is a very topic, especially today, when so many people are moving abroad. The novel offers different sides to the story. While in Antigone the reader/audience is supposed to be on her side, everything is much more complicated in Home Fire. Aneeka’s love for her brother and desire to save him is understandable, but so are the feelings of people who oppose her. As her cousin from Pakistan puts it:

“Did you or your brother stop to think about those of us with passports that look like toilet paper to the rest of the world, who spend our whole lives being so careful we don’t give anyone a reason to reject our visa applications. Don’t stand next to this guy, don’t follow that guy on Twitter, don’t download that Noam Chomsky book. And then first your brother uses us as a cover to join some psycho killers, and then your government thinks this country can be a dumping ground for its unwanted corpses and your family just expects us to jump up and organise a funeral for this week’s face of terrorism.”

But besides all these political and social issues, Home Fire manages to be emotional, too. The later chapters are especially well-written and poetic. So, I’ll end this post with a wonderful paragraph on grief and rage, and once again say that I highly recommend this book to everyone.

“This was not grief. It was rage. It was his rage, the boy who allowed himself every emotion but rage, so it was the unfamiliar part of him, that was all he was allowing her now, it was all she had left of him. She held it to her breast, she fed it, she stroked its mane, she whispered love to it under the starless sky, and sharpened her teeth on its gleaming claws.”


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What Makes a Good Comedy?

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> DISCLAIMER: This post doesn’t answer the question from the title. It’s just me, rambling about comedy. Basically…

This is a question I asked myself after finally watching a sitcom I actually enjoyed. (More about the sitcom later on). I rarely watch sitcoms or comedies these days, because I often find them too silly to be actually funny. And I almost never read funny books (the closest to that are Terry Pratchett’s books). And I sometimes watch some funny tv shows, but I mostly just want to rewatch those I’ve seen before.

Why is this? Are the comedies nowadays really not that good, or am I the problem? The thing is, even some comedies which I found funny before are not as funny to me anymore. Did I become too old and bitter? I hope not, I’m only 26. XD

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As I thought about this, I asked myself what comedies and sitcoms I liked and why. What makes me laugh? And I realised that I liked a bitter kind of humour, humour that actually has something to say. And these things can vary. The most obvious one is social commentary. Now, I know what you are thinking (okay, not really, but some of you might be thinking this): Does humour really have to be socially aware to be funny? Shouldn’t the main point of humour be to relax and just not think about the millions of problems our world faces? And you would be right to ask that. But, if you think about the origin of comedy, it was always, at least a little bit, a social comentary.

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If we want to go to the very origin of comedy, it would probably be the Ancient Greek theatre. Humour certainly existed before Ancient Greece, but they were the first who put some rules on how comedy should look like, and are the ones who basically invented drama. Those Greek comedies were often satirical, even political. Even religion was not left out, and sometimes the myths were changed and incorporated in comedies. One of the rules which stayed to this day is that all comedies end happily, and the conflicts are resolved.

In the Middle Ages, comedy as it once was disappeared. Theatre completely changed, and was reduced to religious and biblical stagings, and on the other hand on mistrels and troubadurs who travelled and entertained. But something else took its place as main entertainment and escape from everyday problems – carnivals. Carnivals were the time when everything was allowed. The poorest peasant could pretend to be a king. Carnivals destroyed social rules and constructs, but at the same time they affirmed those same roles. How? Well, canivals made people’s everyday lives more bearable. They were allowed to make fun of the people above them, only to return to their own social role afterwards. Carnivals were a form or regulation at the same time as they were a form of entertainment. They also created typical (or stock) characters, which remained a part of comedy to this day, just in their more modern roles. It’s basically impossible to not have society influence comedy.

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Picture from Pixabay.com

Now we come to the Rennaissance and commedia dell’ arte, which coexisted with erudite comedy which followed the ancient rules. Commedia dell’ arte was based on the stock characters and the actors’ improvisation. The stock characters were easily recognized because they wore the same clothes and some of them had masks. This is something we have today – typical characters. And this is something that, in my opinion, good comedy should use in an intersting way. Good comedy should not accept the typical characters, but play with them. I guess that originality is also something that makes a piece of art (or entertainment) good. And originality doesn’t necessarily mean moving away from every single trope. It means using what we know in a unique way.

 

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Commedia dell’ arte was very popular, which means it wasn’t boring to people even though it always had the same types of charactes. It usually satirized recent events, often some local scandals, and that’s what made it entertaining. At this point I will stop with the history of comedy, and say that this is something that definitely makes comedy a good one – being current. This leads to the sitcom I actually enjoyed recently. (Yes, I’m finally getting there!) Master of None is created by Aziz Ansari (who also plays the main role) and Alan Yang. It deals with recent issues, such as race and multiculturality. It talks about subjects people actually face today. For example, it commented on the treatment of women in a way which I rarely see in TV shows – by using the actual arguments of women that I’d read many times online but never saw being validated like this. The main character Dev and his male friends are completely oblivious to some things women go though almost every day. This was stressed by Dev complaining that he had a horrible night out and mentioning some quite petty things in comparison to what the women he was talking to went through – she was followed by a man to her apartment. (And bonus points for the stalker guy exclaiming: “Oh, come on, let the nice guy win for once!” This “nice guy” thing really has to be talked about.) Master of None uses fresh subjects and fresh jokes, while also making a social commentary. It doesn’t use real-life issues just to make a joke and then validate the status quo. It actually makes you think about those issues and gives validation to them.

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But can a show that is recent be truly good if it’s not funny some ten, twenty, fifty years in the future? Seinfeld is a sitcom I enjoy so much, even today, though it was based on (then) recent events. I guess some topics are always relevant and some things (sadly) never change. So, yes, there’s a risk of becoming dated. And, sometimes, only time can tell if this will happen. Seinfeld points out certain small social pet peeves and problems that happen to everyone, and which in a certain way won’t change that quickly. I also want to add that this is a problem with Shakespeare, too. He’s taken too seriously! But Shakespeare wrote for the people. Even his tragedies have humour and, yes, sex jokes. The thing is, he uses the language of his own time, so those jokes go unnoticed. And no one is really looking for jokes when reading Shakespeare, because that’s not how he’s taught. I think it’s a missed opportunity… Of course, explaining jokes doesn’t make them funny, but making students aware of the context can be quite interesting. Can something be truly timeless, anyway? Especially humour?

Maybe we should consider some older tv shows, the ones that could be described as “timeless”, and one of them is certainly Blackadder. The humour in this show can be a bit dark, so maybe not for everyone, but I think it will never get old. Why? Because it’s mostly based on witty dialogue and wordplay. It’s also set in different periods in history, and it makes fun of certain historical figures. It plays with our expectations when it comes to those people. Another similar example is ‘Allo ‘Allo! which manages to make one of the darkest periods of history funny.

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But, is it necessary for humour to be timeless to be good? I’m actually not sure. I guess, in the end of the day, what’s important is that we have something that makes us laugh. So, what do you find funny? Which books, films, and tv shows made you laugh, and why?



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Currently Reading: Bright Air Black by Davin Vann

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Recently, I talked about Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, the retelling of The Odyssey from Penelope’s perspective. The book I’m currently reading is also a retelling of a Greek myth, and this time it is the myth of the Argonauts, Jason and Medea. Mostly about Medea, though, since it focuses on her point of view.

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Medea is without words, without thought. She has unstrung the world, pulled some vital thread and unraveled all. Nothing to do now but hold her breath and find out whether a new world re-forms.

Bright Air Black by David Vann is bloody and brutal, as mythology often is. Medea is a sorceress, and this book shows her in all her power and ruthlessness.

She would rather be this. She would bring all together, in balance and quiet. Rule without sound, without rough movement. All held and cought and perfect. But she knows she is meant to destroy, and she knows that she is not done.

Medea is also in search of herself and her place in the world, and she is scared of failure. Despite the horrible things she does, it’s impossible not to sympathise with her, especially when some things she says sound very true.

Kings always blind. Her father not considering his daughters, believing a threat only in a son. Daughters to him no more than a tool to bind other peoples through marriage. Unwilling emissaries, their will never considered. (…) Outcast. This is what she had chosen, and it would have been chosen for her anyway. Her father an enemy later if not now, marriage not powerful enough to prevent war.

There are similarities between Bright Air Black and The Penelopiad, but so far I like this book better. I just love how Medea’s desire to rule, and be powerful and independent is weaved through every paragraph. The writing style is wonderful and poetic. It really made me want to freshen up my knowledge of Greek myths and tales, so besides Bright Air Black I’m also reading Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. Bright Air Black even inspired me to write some short stories (the one I posted recently is one of them), and I don’t think there’s a better recommendation for a book than that. So, I leave you with another quote and I hope this post will make you want to read the book.

 Why the constant desire to kill and dominate? Even in herself, relentless, a need to conquer. She would make all cower on the ground before her, every man in every land.

Infinite Loop (A Short Story from the Underword)

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I died.

It just happened. And in such a stupid way. If I weren’t dead, I’d be angry with myself. To fall off a cliff… Who does that?

On the positive side, once you’re dead nothing matters anymore. Some feelings are left, some memories from the past, some emotions that were strong while you were alive. I’m a spirit now, a shadow of myself, but I am still me. It’s hard to explain it to the living, so I’ll leave it at that.

It all happened just like they said it would. I appeared next to a wide river, a river so long I could not see its end. I was greeted by a boatman. Well, actually, he just gave me a small nod. He didn’t welcome me or call out my name. I realized I had a golden coin in my hand, and I handed it to him. He then helped me climb into the boat.

“It’s strange,” I said.

“What’s strange?” I was surprised that the boatman actually replied.

“It’s all happening just the way I though it would.”

“Well, I don’t see why it’s strange then.”

“I didn’t expect it to happen the way I expected it to happen,” I tried to explain. I guess I’m quite bad at explaining things.

The boatman said nothing. He must’ve thought I was a complete fool. Before I had the time to feel embarrassed, the ride was over. It was impossible we’d already reached the other side, but this was the Underworld. You can expect everything. I had passed to the other side, and I wasn’t bothered by such questions anymore. My only desire was to be given a place to live, my own little piece of eternity.

“Oh, not again!” the boatman suddenly gave a loud sigh. In that moment, he almost looked like your average mortal.

I looked ahead and saw a young woman approaching the river bank.

“I will come for you, my love!” she shouted into the void.

“I know, my love!” even I, being dead and all, was surprised to hear a voice respond to her from the mist.

“Stupid young people,” the boatman grumbled.

“What is going on?” I asked.

“These two stupid lovebirds are really making a mess here. I don’t know why the Mistress allows it. I think she finds it funny. Well, it stopped being funny after the first forty-two times!” he screamed into the mist.

“What are they doing?” I wanted to know.

“Well, he promised her that, if she died before him, he would go to the Underworld and beg the Master and the Mistress to let her live. He would take her place. And she promised she would do the same. Stupid young people. They swore an oath to each other. They never realized it lead to an infinite loop.”

“Infinite loop?”

“You aren’t too bright yourself, are you? Well, he was the first to die. Killed in a war. And she did what she’d promised. She pleaded the gods to let him live and take her instead. They had better things to do than deal with their nonsense, so they accepted. They cared only for the number of souls, not who those souls belonged to. But, you see, now she was dead, and he was alive. So, to honour his oath, he had to come back and take her place. And then he was dead and she came here again… You understand?”

“That’s quite stupid,” I had to admit.

“Well, at least we see each other in passing,” the girl hissed at me and took her place in the boat.

The boatman shrugged in resignation and went to do his job.

I felt like laughing, but I didn’t. Everything was paler now, even my amusement. Still, I knew, I would like my new home.


A silly story. Hope you like it anyway. XD

Currently Reading: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

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I said in one of my previous posts that I wanted to talk more about my current reads. So, I decided to start writing short posts such as this one in which I’m going to tell you a little bit about the book I’m reading, share some of my thoughts on it, and maybe share an interesting quote. Hope you’ll like them!

The book I’m currently reading is The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood. It’s a well-known book, I think, so most of you probably know what it’s about.

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In this novella (I’d say it’s a novella since it’s only 198 pages long), Atwood allows Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, to tell her own story. Penelope talks about the events from The Illiad and The Oddysey from her own point of view. She shares her thoughts and feelings in a manner which seems very sincere. This Penelope is not just a loyal wife who waits her her husband – she actually hates that this is how she is remembered. The prose is raw, clever, and ruthless.

The very first paragraph really caught my attention, and I think it really shows what this book is about. So, I’ll leave you with this paragraph, and hopefully it will make you want to read the book. 🙂

Now that I’m dead I know everything. This is what I wished would happen, but like so many of my wishes it failed to come true. I know only a few factoids that I didn’t know before. Death is much too high a price to pay for the satisfaction of curiosity, needless to say.