The first chapter, entitled “Antigone,” is narrated by Nizam, a young Pashtun woman with amputated legs who has rolled herself in a cart to an American fort in Afghanistan, seeking to recover her brother’s body. Nizam explains to the Americans’ translator that she wants to bury her brother, Yusef. Yusef was identified as a leader of the attack on the base, in which he fought not because he was Taliban–he was not–but because their whole family was wiped out except for him and Nizam.
Captain Connolly refuses her request: he has an order from headquarters to hang on to the body, so it can be shown on TV as a lesson to Taliban insurgents. He doesn’t know if Nizam is a decoy or a suicide bomber, but he doesn’t trust her.
Nizam begins her story with a prayer:
Four. I count the moments and say the Basmala in my head. In the Name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
It’s up to me now. I’m scared: my hands are shaking, my mouth is dry. I cast a look back at the mountains where I have spent my life, where I was born, where my family died.
The plot in The Watch parallels that of Antigone. And let me just say, if you haven’t read Sophocles’ tragedy, a reading will enhance your appreciation. Here’s a brief recap: Antigone, a daughter of Oedipus, pits her personal and religious convictions against the impiety of King Creon, who has refused to allow the burial of her brother, Polynieces. Creon has had him thrown out for the dogs as a traitor. But if he is unburied, Antigone’s brother’s spirit cannot cross the River Styx to the Underworld.
The subsequent chapters of The Watch are told from the American soldiers’ points-of-view. Many begin, like Nizam’s, with counting: “One. Two. Three. Four.” Roy-Bhattacharya gets you into the characters’ heads, and you understand why they have enlisted and how they are coping. I am submerged in grief, especially over the chapters entitled “Lieutenant,” narrated by Lieutenant Nick Frobenius, a classics major from Vassar, who joined the army from a complex mix of philosophy and history, gleaned mainly from the Greeks. He refers to the government as “a bunch of fucking Creons,” and says the army is the only institution with a concept of honor.
Nick’s wife has left him; his father is descending into Alzheimer’s. The beginning of Nick’s journal repeats the first lines of Nizam’s story, a kind of prayer.
Four…in five seconds I will have turned twenty-four. Yet another year added to my life. I hold up a mirror to my face. Below the wall of forehead, the eyes crouch warily. Stone-gray gaze, eyelids rimmed with red, lashes bleached by dust, mouth encircled by grime. Taut, thin lips, distant, long gaze. God of memory, of longings: grant me the gift of rest.
Nizam and Nick are like a sister and brother of different nationalities. They’re both intelligent, both rely on art. Nizam plays a musical instrument at night in the desert; Nick listens to Mozart’s “Requiem” on his iPod and reads the classics. Much of the dialogue in the novel resembles that of a Greek tragedy.
There are other characters, some sympathetic, some not. The Americans’ translator, Masoud, appears in a chapter entitled “Ismene”: in the play, Ismene is Antigone’s sister, who refuses to help her bury their brother because she doesn’t want to die. Masoud gradually comes to understand Nizam.
Roy-Bhattacharya paints a particularly vivid portrait of First Sergeant Marcus Whalen, a 37-year-old career soldier from Baton Rouge, who loves jazz, has compassion for the troops, and gives good counsel to the soldiers. Then there is the Medic, who hopes to go to medical school one day, and dreams that he is watching a 1961 film of Antigone with Irene Papas. We also meet the pragmatic Second Lieutenant, and the cold Captain with no imagination.
All have been influenced by Nick with his classics.
It’s a remarkable book. And, of course, I read it as an anti-war book.
I am rereading this. It is my second “If I Were Oprah” pick of the summer. It’s really good.
I hope it’s as good on a second reading.