The Tempest, Steve Sem-Sandberg
Faber and Faber
Review by Liam Bishop
The character of Prospero has been dealt several revisions over the centuries. Early audiences saw him as a surrogate for Shakespeare, delivering what transpired to be the playwright’s swan-song. Now though, it’s difficult not to see Prospero as a breed of the white colonialist, representative of a class liberal Britain is all but slightly ashamed of. The Tempest however, in the face of its multifarious interpretations, is a play about the act of interpretation and ultimately a tale about whose story has the power to preside over everybody else’s.
As its title suggests, Steve Sem-Sandberg’s novel borrows heavily from the play and is similarly concerned with the power of stories. Here though, that power is rigged with authoritative potential when the protagonist Andreas Lehman, returns to the island in which he grew up with his foster-father, Johannes, and sister, Minna. “What’s past is prologue”, proclaims Prospero in one of his more famous orations, but Andreas is locked in a battle to excavate what may be an explanation for events that led to the disappearance of his sister and their real parents. As his stay on the island extends, he begins to uncover the actions of the island’s owner, Jan-Heinz Kaufmann.
For past to be prologue some damage needs to be settled, and for this reason the novel feels encapsulated within a state of inertia. All around what might be the ‘real story’ are other narratives which serve as competing forces trying to find their way. But remember when Miranda accedes to her father early in the play, “More to know/Did never meddle with my thoughts?” It is precisely this problem of knowing more that meddles with Andreas as he tries to find the truth.
A desire for knowledge is framed by Prospero as “an undergoing stomach to bear up/Against what should come”, instigating a series of replete references throughout the play. Appetite was a central concern of a Sem-Sandberg’s The Emperor of Lies (2009), in which the Jews in the Łódź ghetto desperately search for sustenance. Here, though, hunger takes on that figurative quality Shakespeare gave it in the context of knowledge, and Sem-Sandberg appears to be asking if anyone has the stomach for the stories contained on this island? Do the characters - do we as humans - have the will to digest the horrific stories that sometimes make up our existences?
Kaufmann we learn, was a minister for Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian leader and Nazi collaborator during the Second World War, welcoming him to view his work on the island. The core of the two island tales might seem different, but it is here that Sem-Sandberg extrapolates the latent and damaging desire that runs through them both. Ultimately, the real tragedy in Shakespeare’s play is one of subjugation: Prospero’s only listeners to his stories are his daughter and Caliban, and the play becomes a question of how Miranda will free herself to be with Ferdinand. Effectively she needs consent to be able to give consent. The problem in Sem-Sandberg’s novel is what happens when consent is not accounted for, and there is a suggestion that change or transformation is hinged on either giving or not giving consent.
The potential for change, for transformation, can be too much to handle. The prospect then of finding out the real story and being enabled to make peace, is the prospect of dealing with most transformative aspect of all: the truth.
Liam Bishop is a writer from Leeds, UK and his work has appeared on Review 31 and Full Stop Magazine amongst others. To see some of his other writing visit his website www.curbcomplex.com.