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Saturday, November 27, 2010

Review of "Antigone's Wake" by Nicholas Nicastro

Antigone’s Wake: A Novel of Imperial Athens by Nicholas Nicastro describes Athens’ campaign against Samos in 440-439 BC through the eyes of the playwright Sophocles. Allegedly, Sophocles was one of the ten elected Athenian generals who conducted the campaign under the overall leadership of Pericles. Although there is no attempt to apologize for Athens’ aggressive and imperial policy and many of the negative aspects of Athenian society are described in the course of the book, Nicastro clearly likes Athens and his characters in this book better than he liked his heroes or Sparta in Isle of Stone. Throughout the book, the tone is light-hearted and whimsically self-critical rather than oppressive and hopeless, making it a much easier and more pleasant read than Isle of Stone.

Particularly well-drawn is the hero Sophocles. Nicastro very effectively portrays the great playwright as a man who is at once vain and insecure, a man proud of his accomplishments and yet conscious of his failings. He is a man with weaknesses, but not without virtues and conscience. All in all, he is a likeable protagonist and one which the reader readily follows.

The portrayal of Pericles was also intriguing. Since I know very little about the historical Pericles, I have no way of judging the accuracy of Nicastro’s portrayal, although from what I do know the fictional character represents a legitimate interpretation of the historical figure. Certainly, Nicastro’s Pericles was effective in the context of the novel, where the "rational" Pericles serves as a good foil for the more emotional Sophocles. Because Pericles epitomizes “rational” policy and “realpolitik,” he also advocates cold-blooded political expediency and so embodies Imperial Athens, a role that is appropriate for the most famous Athenian politician of his age.

Sophocles son Iophon likewise plays a believable, if more monotone role in the novel, as the spoilt son of a successful father. Fathers of teenage sons will probably identify strongly with Sophocles in his disappointment over his son's refusal to recognize his achievements and his frustration in trying to provide wise guidance. The relationship between father and son is at once completely modern and compellingly authentic, as a variety of ancient writers also complained about the rudeness of youth and their lack of respect for their fathers. In short, the phenomenon appears timeless.

Unfortunately, all three women characters in Antigone's Wake are mere steriotypes: the intelligent whore (Aspasia), the nagging wife (Nais) and the stupid teenage girl, Sophocles’ daughter Photia. Whereas Aspasia and Nais are well drawn steriotypes, who still play their roles within the novel effectively, Nicastro’s failure to breathe life into Photia is a serious flaw in the novel.  Nicastro's plot requires Photio to fulfil a key function and provide a dramatic climax to the novel. Because Nicastro neglects Photia for the larger part of the novel and makes no effort to develop a character rather than a steriotype, she fails to play her assigned role convincingly. In consequence, I found the ending of the novel a disappointment after an otherwise good read.

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