Friday, May 4, 2012

Honest Villain, Lying Hero, Son of Venice, Iago Alone

Nicole Galland, I, Iago: A Novel 

Iago Sorzano, youngest and most extraneous son of a prosperous Venetian merchant, has lived as someone’s pawn all his life. His father has managed his military career for family advantage. The city has made him a motto of its pretended virtues, without his permission. And his blunt honesty has made him an unwitting laughingstock. Yet he soldiers on, determined to be the right man for the right situation, because his integrity doesn’t let him stop.

Nicole Galland recasts Shakespeare’s most plainspoken villain as the hero of his own respective tragedy in this sequel to Othello. Far from the knave who challenges the audience to hate him, Galland’s Iago is a man determined to live up to the standards others set for him. But a series of brutal reversals upset a man known for his honesty, teaching him to dissemble aggressively. And when he stands to lose everything, he embarks on his notorious campaign of vengeance.

Though more a scholar by inclination, Iago’s father forces him into the military, where he proves to have unrecognized genius. This moves a formerly forgotten son to the peak of Venetian society. There he meets the two people who make him complete: Emilia, the beautiful wife who matches his constant witticisms, and Othello, the foreign general who becomes his best friend and greatest supporter. Iago appears to have every blessing a rich humanist society can afford.

But the intense military environment, and the shifting loyalties of the Senate and of factionalized Italy, test every citizen. Emotions run high, and when loyal friends make mistakes they can’t take back, an honest man thinks he has no choice but to defend his honesty. Iago, formerly relentless in his pursuit of truth, becomes a sudden master of self-justification. He never sees how his desire to restore the balances only compounds the problem until just too late.

Galland does not assume any prior familiarity on her readers’ part with Shakespeare’s original play. Iago tells his story with such detail and fluidity that complete novices could enjoy this novel—and, hopefully, feel inspired to go discover Shakespeare’s original. But She also packs her narrative with subtle, telling details that will give old hands the thrill of recognition as we see familiar characters and well-known situations in a new light.

Far from some random fop Iago manipulates, for instance, Roderigo becomes a force in his own right. Though Roderigo and Iago get up to some boyhood hijinks together, Roderigo has become his own man, reversing his family’s declining fortunes and making himself someone Venice must reckon with. Accustomed to getting his own way, he sees Iago as a fellow traveller when he encounters his life’s first frustration. Iago makes it plain his old friend could not be more wrong.

Actors and critics have struggled to interpret Iago since time out of mind. Frank Finlay, in Olivier’s 1965 Othello film, played the character as a straightforward Machiavellian schemer, with his eye on the bottom line but disguised behind a remarkable deadpan. Kenneth Branagh, playing alongside Laurence Fishburne in 1995, brought an ambiguous sexual tenor to the character. But these views are not unanimous. Iago remains one of Shakespeare’s most difficult characters.

I particularly appreciate that Galland does not attempt to simplify or ameliorate the complications so many find in the character. If anything, watching her Iago perform contortions to hold himself aloof from court intrigue or social niceties, she makes the character even more complex. His unreliable first-person narration disorients us, because we cannot tell how much of what we learn reflects reality, and how much reflects Iago’s ambitious whitewash.

This Iago pushes the bounds of morality from both directions. He will challenge a fellow soldier to a competition he has already rigged, then demonstrate how he rigged it. He uses his rigid sexual mores as a tool of seduction. He antagonizes the cream of Venetian society, then pretend offense when they applaud his rough discourtesy. Galland’s Iago is a man famous for not wanting fame, honorable (in his own eyes at least) for disdaining the pretenses of honor.

Galland’s Iago makes a courtly lover and a supreme gentleman. But we also cannot trust him to tell us everything. He protests his own honesty so much that we realize the one person he has completely gulled is himself. His studied eloquence and his elaborate rationalization reveal rather more about himself than he realizes. Galland does an excellent job unpacking the possible motives of a character that has defied easy categorization for centuries.

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