IAGO, the villain of William Shakespeare's Othello, has both fascinated and puzzled critics in the centuries since the play's first performance.
Commentators and adapters have struggled to make sense of the seeming senselessness of Iago's villainy, with one critic famously concluding that Iago is "a motiveless malignity."
In this uneven historical novel, Englishman David Snodin, producer and writer of a number of TV movies, imagines the aftermath of Shakespeare's play. The story shifts through a range of narrative perspectives, which serve both to remind the reader of the essential elements of the play and to introduce us to Snodin's vision of 16th-century Venice, ripe with vendetta, sewage-choked canals and garrulous prostitutes.
The novel follows three characters: Iago, who has escaped the custody of the Venetian authorities; the inquisitor Annibale Malipiero, who is charged not only with capturing Iago, but also with making sense of the violence Iago has loosed on Venice; and the bookish, virginal Gentile Stornello, who accompanies Iago in his flight from Venice.
Gentile, whose narration supplies most of our exposure to Iago, is an overeducated weakling, despised by his father, overshadowed by his breezily muscular soldier brother, and tormented by his nemesis Jacopo, the handsome, violent scion of the Malipiero family.
It is by way of one of his conflicts with Jacopo that Gentile comes to the attention of his uncle Annibale, who sees Gentile as a tool to ferret out Iago's motives for causing the deaths of Othello and his wife, Desdemona.
Annibale places Gentile in a cell with the taciturn Iago, who hasn't spoken since the final scene of Othello, and then engineers their escape from the Venetian Prigioni Ducale so that he can follow them and discover Iago's motives.
The events leading up to the escape comprise the first half of Snodin's book, which moves more slowly than it needs to, bogged down by repeated confrontations with Jacopo and his clan, and a Romeo and Juliet-inspired subplot in which Gentile pines for Jacopo's servant-cum-mistress Franceschina.
This section underscores the novel's biggest problem: Snodin is a much better plotter than he is a writer. As long as the story stagnates in Venice, the reader must endure Gentile's adolescent, poetry-inspired romantic fantasies, made less tolerable by Snodin's uneven prose.
Once the characters leave Venice, Iago, who is far more interesting than his young companion, becomes central, and the story becomes more engaging as it moves inexorably towards the answer to the question that Annibale, like four centuries of readers, can't help asking: why?
Snodin worked as script editor for the BBC/Time-Life adaptations of Shakespeare's plays in the 1980s and his familiarity with his source text is fully on display in the novel. Characters repeatedly echo lines not only from Othello but from a number of Shakespeare's plays.
One of these lines, "I am not what I am," serves as an epigraph to the novel. It is a quintessential expression of Iago's nihilistic world view, a refusal to be analysed and understood. Snodin's Iago, though, emphatically is what he is, as the story's slow trek through the Italian countryside moves ever closer, in terms of both geography and narrative, to the source of Iago's malevolence.
It is a journey that ends, as it seems all post-Freudian accounts of evil must, with sexual trauma suffered in childhood.
This is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the novel, betraying as it does the most unsettling aspect of Shakespeare's play. Whereas Shakespeare's Othello reveals to us monstrosity disguised as mundanity, Snodin's Iago only manages to make the monstrous mundane.
Brandon Christopher teaches Shakespeare at the University of Winnipeg.