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Jocasta by Brian Aldiss

01/03/2005. Contributed by Pauline Morgan

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pub: The Rose Press, 22. West End Lane, Pinner, Middlesex, HA5 1AQ. 311 page limited edition hardback. Price: 24.99 (UK), $44.95 (US). ISBN: 0-9548277-0-8.

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This is a beautifully produced limited edition. The boards are designed to look like tooled leather with title, author and the image of a sphinx applied in gold. The end papers are a full colour reproduction of part of 'Oedipus And The Sphinx' by Gustav Moreau. There are two other drawings reproduced within the volume as well as a line portrait of Brian Aldiss by Susanna Rose. There are other, small line drawings decorating chapter headings and the top of each page. The text is printed on high quality, acid-free paper. It is a lovely object to handle. There are only 750 of them available and each is numbered and signed.

The contents within the pages are also excellent. Most people believe they know the story of Oedipus, of how the Gods prophesied that Laius, King of Thebes, would be killed by his son and that the son would then marry his mother. This story made up part of the oeuvre of the Greek dramatist, Sophocles, and is perhaps the best known of his surviving scripts.

The text of 'Jocasta' follows Sophocles' tragedy very closely. Both open at the time when Oedipus has been King of Thebes for twenty years. The land around the city is suffering from drought with the elders and citizens convinced that this is a punishment but the fact that the killers of Laius, their previous king, have not been brought to justice. Oedipus vows to find and punish the killers, little knowing that he has just declared vengeance on himself.

This is not a straight forward novelisation of a play, Aldiss is far too cunning a writer for that. His version of the story has been written from the point of view of Jocasta, the mother and wife of Oedipus. In the original play, she is, with only two exceptions, given only short lines to deliver. Aldiss' premise is that as a mother she may well have recognised the grown Oedipus as her son but, partly due to the prophecy which would tell the world who Laius' killer was she kept quite, thus allowing the rest of the tragedy to unfold. Ancient Greek plays tended to have one setting, there being (as far as we know, few props on the stage of the amphitheatre). To add motion and interest, Aldiss has introduced additional characters. Semele, a witch and Jocasta's grandmother, lives in a hut outside the palace with a pair of griffins for pets.

One of her roles is to add humour to the narrative. The Sphinx has a similar role. Originally, the mythical beast had stationed itself outside Thebes letting no-one pass unless they could answer its riddles. The Elders of the city had promised that whoever could free them from the menace of the Sphinx would marry Jocasta and become king of Thebes. This Oedipus did and no more was heard of it. Aldiss has Oedipus keeping the creature around as a pet although at times it is all or part invisible. When it goes into the depths of the palace to lay an egg, Jocasta hunts for it. This labyrinthine building cuts through dimensions as in the depths she meets a Greek claiming to be Sophocles. He tells her that she is a figment of his imagination and he has written a tragic end for her. Thus an added dimension is added to the novel. Do the characters in a play or story only exist because the writer creates them or do they exist and the writer is merely a vehicle for the telling of their story?

Sophocles wrote three Theban plays. 'Jocasta' the novel follows the path of the first. The second deals with 'Oedipus' in his wanderings and exile after the events of the first. The third, 'Antigone', deals with the aftermath of the battle between Oedipus' two sons in which they kill each other. One, Creon, is buried with full honours, the other is left to rot outside the city walls. Antigone's tragedy comes about when she determines to bury her brother - a clash between honour and obedience to her king.
The last section of Aldiss' novel, 'Jocasta', blends the events of Sophocles' play with the imminent execution of the theatre director, Karimov. He made the mistake of putting of the Theban plays and the country's ruler took the production as a comment against his own regime. Antigone and Karimov enter each others dreams as both moves toward similar destinies.

Aldiss plays with words and ideas very successfully and in unexpected ways. He still has the ability to surprise.

Pauline Morgan

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