Thursday, January 19, 2012

What you know, you know

"Why did you strike his so soundly?"

"He needs that scholarly pride clouted out of him."

"Like the man you spoke of who angered you?"

There's a short silence. His shoulders rise and fall. "There are those who think that all of life's lessons can be reaped from reading. I despise them."

"Despise them?"

"What a man does with his brain is his concern, not mine. Just do not let him think he's a better man for it. [...]"

Although many professional reviewers are quibbling over the liberties David Snodin has taken with Shakespeare's Othello, I rather enjoyed his Iago, and I'm guessing my general ignorance of Shakespeare went a long way in this regard. I didn't notice what plot points were changed, nor did I have a strong sense of Iago's character before jumping in.

Of course, I knew the basics of Shakespeare's story, and read up on it a little after Snodin's novel had hooked me.

Snodin has written about his fascination with the character of Iago, and the more I know, the more entranced I become myself — enough so that I'll be checking out Othello on film soon.

Snodin's story picks up where Shakespeare's left off. Iago is imprisoned for murder in a remote corner of Cyprus, and by page 11 we learn he's escaped. Back in Venice, we learn of the domestic tragedy of Othello and experience its aftermath through Gentile Stornello, cousin of Shakespeare's ill-fated Desdemona. Gentile's a nerd and a weakling — a poet! — and he gets mixed up with — that is, beaten up by — one of the Malipiero bad boys. And he falls for his servant girl.

One of the Malipiero uncles is Chief Inquisitor of the Serene Republic of Venice. He has Gentile brought in, because he can. And he throws Gentile — who reminds him of his own deceased son — in with Iago — for whom there is still an official hunt going on. That is, he's got Iago, but he's not telling anyone yet, cuz that's not enough for him; he wants to know what makes Iago tick. So he lets him go. Malipiero uses Gentile to gleen what he can about Iago.

So the plot has some Shakespearean-like complexities at its core.

It's a cat-and-mouse story — the cat know exactly where the mouse is, and the mouse knows the cat is on its tail, but the cat waits for exactly the right moment to pounce, and the mouse plays to survive, and you're never really sure what the cat gets out of it. Is there really such a thrill in the hunt or is it simply playing, to the death — does it enjoy the game or is it merely acting according to its nature?

There are a lot of reasons I enjoyed Iago.

One. I'm loving historical Venice, its sounds and colours. This is directly related to my ongoing relationship with the Assassin's Creed video games, and reading this book was a reasonable substitute for the games, allowing me to immerse myself in that world through a different channel.

Two. It seems I may have my own personal Iago these days, whispering groundless suppositions in my Othello's ear. But by what motivation? Jealousy, cruelty, kindness, justice, amusement?

Three. I read this novel while watching people grieve. It served as a much-needed escape from funereal circumstances and as a reminder of some basic truths.

The loyalty and protection of those closest to you, I think, is what makes for true succor — a shield against the fears of the night and the perils of the world outside.

Mostly it made me wonder about our true natures. Do we always act as our selves, or can we be driven to deeds that are out of character? How? Which is our true self — the one in cool-headed repose or the one inflamed by passion? Do we betray our true selves under torture? People around me are saying things in their grief — I can't tell if it has muddied their contact with the world or if it has stripped bare something that is in their essence.

(With these questions I'm reminded of Louise Penny's A Trick of the Light, a completely different novel from this one, and a remarkably strong one in how it's holding up in my memory, but with a similar motivation — to dig at the roots of human nature.)

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
The New Republic
Washington Post
Winnipeg Free Press

I tend to agree with the reviewer of the Winnipeg Free Press piece:

It is a journey that ends, as it seems all post-Freudian accounts of evil must, with sexual trauma suffered in childhood.

This is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the novel, betraying as it does the most unsettling aspect of Shakespeare's play. Whereas Shakespeare's Othello reveals to us monstrosity disguised as mundanity, Snodin's Iago only manages to make the monstrous mundane.

From what I gather, if you know your Shakespeare, this book may disappoint you, but if you're like me, Iago may inspire you to approach its source.


Cipriano said...

Isabella, this sounds like such an interesting read to me, because I love Othello so much, [well, aside from not forgiving him for not trusting his faithful wife, much less, for killing her] and I HATE Iago so much!
If I might fully endorse a movie, it is the 1995 version of Othello starring Laurence Fishburne as The Moor, a stunningly gorgeous Irene Jacob as Desdemona, and a wonderfully seethingly horrid Kenneth Branagh as the villainous Iago.
It is a PERFECT gem of a movie.

Isabella K said...

Thanks,Cip. Yup, I've had a few recommendations for this film. It's on my list.