Daisy Godwin’s lament about the lack of redmption in so many of today’s novels – made whilst chairing the Orange Prize judging panel – put her in good company. Samuel Johnson famously endorsed Nahum Tate‘s sugar coated revision of Shakespeare’s King Lear. The play had been too bleak, by far, for a Restoration audience, prompting Tate to rewrite the ending allowing Cordelia to live and marry Edgar. Debate raged over the tragic ending’s substitution, but Johnson defended it when he included Tate’s version in his edition of Shakespeare’s plays (1765) commenting:
“Cordelia, from the time of Tate, has always retired with victory and felicity. And, if my sensations could add anything to the general suffrage, I might relate that I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia’s death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor.”
From the old King wandering madly in a violent storm, and the savage gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes, through to the dramatic dashing of the audience’s hopes with Cordelia’s death, Johnson was right – at least about one thing. It is truly shocking, and part of the unease comes precisely from the lack of charity or kindness shown towards the characters by the playwright. “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods, They kill us for their sport”. Shakespeare modified the story deliberately to strike off Cordelia – all the versions of the story in circulation, from which he based the play, had her survive and happily marry Edmund.
Niccolò Ammanati‘s The Crossroads [published also as ‘As God Commands‘, a literal translation of the Italian title Come Dio Commanda] has significant echoes of King Lear, though it’s set in modern day Italy (an Italy of dreary shopping malls, social services and bleak peripheries – heck, there’s not even a glimpse of sunshine or sun-dried tomatoes!), its central characters are a Neo-Nazi and his son, and it is written in short, sharp, nail-biting chapters which owe more to Stephen King (in his heyday) than the Bard. Most obviously the main action takes place against the backdrop of an apocalyptic storm, but underneath that bluster the themes being touched upon are remarkably similar.
It is a strange and gripping story that revolves primarily around the idea of fatherhood (and, along with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and Nick Cave’s The Death of Bunny Monroe could make up an imaginative box-set for any Father’s Day gift). By extension it balances contending concepts of the universe, between that which has a loving God at its centre, and one which has energy and chaos as its only design . The story opens in the early hours of the morning, with 13 year old Cristiano being brutally woken by his drunken father, who orders him to navigate through the snow outside to a nearby furniture factory to silence a barking guard-dog – with a pistol. Switch back to Lear’s opening scenes where the King, in his hubris, is ready to divide his kingdom based upon fawning declarations of love. The demands of both these fathers are the same – unquestioning obedience, and unquestioning love.
What follows in The Crossroads is harrowing and compelling, though I’ll avoid getting too involved in the plot as part of Ammaniti’s appeal is the skill with which he weaves a complicated story, throwing cliffhangers with abandon into his page-turningly brief chapters – bringing to mind Chuck Palahniuk, who (in interview with TMO) said of his own style:
“I always want to keep the story moving, – he explains. – This means a constant flow of plot points, occurring in short scenes. Over the length of a novel, this forces the plot beyond any moderate crisis. What might be the dramatic peak of another book will just be the first-act peak in my books.”
Suffice to say that, like Shakespeare, Amminiti has no compunction about inflicting harm on his characters, and there are casualties aplenty strewing the stage by the end of the drama – a drama that, no doubt would have Godwin and Johnson squirming in their seats (or perhaps striking a title off of a longlist). The casualties though are far from casual, and as in his other novels (I’ll Steal You Away, and I’m not Scared) the bloodshed poses larger questions about society.