25 April 2012
Book Review: I, Iago, by Nicole Galland
But I thoroughly enjoyed I, Iago. The idea behind this story is to retell Othello from Iago's perspective. In some cases, the idea of re-framing a story from the villain's point of view doesn't quite work. In this case, it works beautifully. Part of the book's success is due to author Nicole Galland's skill as a writer. She presents a carefully developed story that manages to make Iago a somewhat sympathetic villain. There's no avoiding his mistakes and the sins that he commits, but there's also a measure of appreciation for what makes him who he is. It's easy to forget that the character is still human and has motivations that might very well stem from something other than pure evil. At the same time, the errors are not necessarily justified; they're just explained. The reader can appreciate how the horrific inevitable came to be within the story. And this is difficult to do. There's always the potential for contrivance within the plot, for moments when the author is trying too hard to shape the storyline that will follow. But Galland does a great job of planting the seeds of destruction from the beginning. The character's personality and defining traits are there from the first moments of the story. They're also presented in such a way that each moment counts, but not so obviously that the reader sees the wizard behind the curtain. In other words, this is good storytelling.
The only possible downside to reading a book like this is that if you're familiar with the play -- and I suspect that Galland is writing more to readers who are -- you already know the ending before you open to page one. Then again, I, Iago is more about the journey than the destination. (And, yes, I'm aware of how completely trite that sentence is. Alas, it's also true.) The purpose of this story is not to surprise the reader with the ending but rather to show the reader how a familiar ending can be achieved in an unfamiliar way. I had a poetry teacher in college say that the purpose of poetry is to "make the familiar strange." That seems like a fair description for I, Iago as well, in that Galland wants to take the reader back to the beginning and retell the story in a way that the reader doesn't fully recognize. This is the how and why of Othello. And it's not really about Othello at all.
I found myself liking Iago and understanding him a little better. Sure, he irritated me at times, and it was easy enough to point out his flaws. The story is told in first person, so this is the perfect opportunity to play with the idea of the unreliable narrator. Readers can see moments when Iago needs a healthy intervention that simply doesn't occur. Readers can also see the train wreck before it happens, while still understanding what caused it. Again, there's a well-crafted approach to the sympathetic villain in this book.
As for the other characters in the story, the most recognizable ones from the play are fairly well fleshed out. Emilia was particularly delightful. Had her ending not been so complete, I would have liked to read a book about her. Othello was also well drawn, particularly in view of his place in Venetian society. And Venice herself is a character in the story, and quite a fascinating one. Venice, in some ways, is the story, because what occurs in I, Iago, as well as Othello, results much from the rules that govern this imperious city. In all honesty, Desdemona was a little flat, but then again she always has been. The archetypal "beautiful and perfect" woman is never all that interesting, and there might not be much of a point in trying to make her so.
Highly recommended, particularly for those who know the play. If it's new to you, the book is certainly still readable and accessible; it just won't have that extra context that knowledge of the play offers. (And despite my opening paragraph, I'd have to recommend dipping into Shakespeare first, if for no other reason than establishing the context that Shakespeare brings to readers of literature and particularly literature inspired by Shakespeare. Considering that the author is the co-founder of a project known as Shakespeare for the Masses, I suspect she wouldn't object to this.)
Year of publication: 2012
Number of pages: 370