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Homage to the Bard with Bloody-Handed Bastards and Gold Bars – Macbeth, by Jo Nesbo

Macbeth, by Jo Nesbo. Translated into English by Don Bartlett, 2018. (Hardcover; publisher: Knopf Canada; April 10, 2018; 446 pages)

Jo Nesbo is a masterful writer of crime fiction. In his particular niche, he is superb. That said, it probably takes his level of expertise and confidence to take on William Shakespeare and write a modern interpretation of Shakespeare’s 1606 play, The Tragedy of Macbeth. It is probably best if you read Nesbo’s Macbeth without ever having read the play, because if you have, you will spend ages in a kind of suspended animation, pausing to compare the book to the play. I sometimes did not know whether I wanted to continue reading since I realized that Nesbo had kept pretty close to the details of the play, and I knew how the play ends. So it is best that you ignore Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and tackle this exactly like you would normally approach a Nesbo novel – gleefully anticipating murder, gore, and bastards with blood on their hands.

17th Century English creeps in

Anyone who has studied English literature will know quotes from the play (“Out, damned spot! Out, I say!”, or “Double, double toil and trouble”, etc.), and snatches of Elizabethan English, and will inevitably find equivalents in the book. I don’t know if Nesbo did it by accident, having had the original play on his mind, or whether he or the translator peppered the text with those anachronisms on purpose.

“My orders, loyal Seton, will be unambiguous.” (p.199)

“And yet, good Duff, that’s precisely why you’ve come here?” (p.201)

“We’ll be hailed as the saviours of the town, Duff.” (p. 211)

All hail Macbeth!” came the cry from inside the cell.” (p. 224)

You get the idea. “All hail”, for instance, was popular right up to the 1800s, when it peaked, but by 2000 the expression was hardly used at all. Those words and forms of expression are Elizabethan, not from the 1970s. Either way, every time I got to one it seemed intrusive, since the novel is set 25 years after the Hiroshima atom bomb was dropped, in other words, 1970, in a nameless town in Scotland.

“Twenty-five years ago an American president dropped the atom bomb on two Japanese towns populated by children, civilians and innocents. It stopped a war. That’s the kind of paradox God torments us with.” (p.246)

The setting supports the time period, with references to Fife and Inverness in Scotland and consumer goods of the time, such as record players. But would a modern-day Scottish police officer, particularly one as mentally twisted and high on drugs as Macbeth, use the words “populated by” – one of the many times he uses long, formal terms? I wonder.

Daggers and blood and interesting ways to die

A portrait of the real Macbeth, King of Scots, King of Alba. Born c. 1005, died 15 August 1057. Painted by Jacob de Wet II, c. 1673. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is based on the Holinshed’s Chronicles (published in 1577) on the life of King Macbeth and is not historically accurate.

There are more anachronisms like the language though. There’s an awful lot of daggers being used. I did not think that daggers were still a thing in 1970. But daggers are very Elizabethan. At one point, “Macbeth’s” enemies are obliterated by the use of Gatling guns. A Gatling gun is a pre-WWI gun of which all models were declared obsolete by the U.S. military in 1911, after 45 years of service. Also, Macbeth wants to pay off a co-conspirator with a briefcase full of gold bars

The puzzling case of the gold bars

People on the Internet have asked the same question that I have had – which is, how many gold bars can you get into a briefcase? It’s a personal bugbear that I have – people who don’t have anything to do with Mining always get the thing about gold bars wrong.

So here it is:

  • There are many sizes, shapes and weights of gold bars, but the ”Good Delivery” Gold bar, which meets the specification issued by the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA), has a Fineness of minimum of 995.0 parts per thousand fine gold; Gold content of 350–430 troy ounces, and a maximum size of ~11.4 x ~3.3 inches, ~28.9 x ~8.38 cm. And it weighs 13 kg.
  • A roomy attache case of ~17.75 x ~12.9 inches, ~45.08 x ~32.76 cm, will hold at least 5 bars, each being only ~1–1.8 inches, 25–45 mm high. So under those five bars, you could fit a nice flat bomb. At ~13 kg for each bar, your briefcase will weigh a whopping 65 kgs for just the gold, which would be worth, at today’s prices, £380,465 or US$498,107. A nice payoff therefore.
  • Your problem would be the weight of that gold. It would probably tear the handle off an ordinary briefcase, and you would have to be a weightlifter to carry it as if it were normal. (And if Nesbo actually meant a suitcase, which is larger, then the problem is even worse.)

Macbeth promises his enemy a big payoff but replaces the gold bars with gold-plated iron, a fraction of the weight, and a large bomb. That explains how he can run up and down stairs with the briefcase in his hand. However, it points to a certain carelessness by Nesbo – people who look only a little bit deeper know how heavy gold is, and the “Can You Lift a Gold Bar With One Hand? Challenge” is so pervasive, it’s almost a joke. (The answer is, probably not.) Why would you even think of using such an old idea in your novel? The last author I read who used this silliness was Ian Fleming in Goldfinger.

The same, yet different

Adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, particularly Macbeth, in different media – from films to symphonies – are fairly common. So the novelization and modernization are not unusual. It is after all a very dramatic play. In its time it was the equivalent of a populist action drama: short, inflammatory and violent. Just the kind of incendiary stuff, critical of the ruling royals, that the audiences of the time would’ve enjoyed.

Other than the references, the settings and language I’ve already mentioned, what remains is very like the original Macbeth – the horrible weather, the politics, the motivations, the relationships between the characters, the state of war, the absolutely mental bastards (practically the whole police force) and of course, their names:

  • Duncan—King of Scotland, stays “Duncan”, head of the town’s police force
  • Malcolm—Duncan’s elder son – becomes Duncan’s 2-i-c, stays “Malcolm”
  • Macbeth—a general in the army of King Duncan; stays “Macbeth” , becomes heat of the SWAT team, reporting to Duncan, and then Chief Commissioner
  • Lady Macbeth—Macbeth’s wife, and later Queen of Scotland, becomes just “Lady”, Macbeth’s partner and owner of a casino
  • Banquo—Macbeth’s friend and a general in the army of King Duncan, stays “Banquo” like that and is still Macbeth’s old friend and surrogate father
  • Fleance—Banquo’s son, stays “Fleance”
  • Macduff—a Thane (a lower-ranking noble) of Fife, becomes just “Duff”, childhood friend of Macbeth and his eventual rival
  • Ross, Lennox, Angus, Caithness—Scottish Thanes—Even they keep their names, with “Caithness” becoming “Duff’s” lover and also a member of the police force.
  • One of the apparitions that haunts “Lady Macbeth” in the play—a bloodied child—becomes “Lady’s” dead child which, similarly, causes her to become unhinged.
  • The trio of witches who prophecy that Macbeth will one day he will become King of Scotland, in the play, is replaced in the book by a large transvestite called “Strega”, who hangs out with two drug-addled vaguely Asian friends who predict Macbeth’s appointment as Police Chief Commissioner.
  • Hecate, the ruler of the three witches, becomes “Hecate”, a drug lord, and the boss of “Strega”.

Sometimes, the writing is uncannily similar. Take this moment between Macbeth and his wife’s doctor, after Lady Macbeth/Lady has had one of her episodes:

Macbeth, by William Shakespeare – play

Macbeth by Jo Nesbo – novel

Extract 1

“Macbeth: How does your patient, doctor?

Doctor: Not so sick, my lord, as she is troubled with thick-coming fancies that keep her from rest.

Macbeth: Cure her of that! Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased, pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow, raze out the written troubles of the brain, and with some sweet oblivious antidote cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff which weighs upon her heart.

Doctor: Therein the patient must minister to himself.”

Extract 2
“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

Extract 1

“What’s wrong with her?”
“Hard to say.” […]
“You have to cure her.”
“As I said, with the little we really know about the human mind that’s a lot to ask…”

“Surgery,” Macbeth said. “That’s what’s needed, that’s what a real doctor does: he cuts away what is pernicious. He excludes any thought of the patient’s pain because that only makes him vacillate. You remove and destroy the offending item, a tumor or a rotting foot, to save the whole. It’s not that the tumor or the foot are evil in themselves, they simply have to be sacrificed. Isn’t that so, Doctor?”

The psychiatrist tilted his head. “Are you sure it’s your wife who needs to be examined and not yourself, Mr. Macbeth?” (pp. 267-268) 

Extract 2
(In a note written by “Lady”) “Tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow. The days crawl in the mud, and in the end all they have accomplished is to kill the sun again and bring all men closer to death.” (p.409)

Where’s the kick in it?

What makes the novel worth reading then, apart from the plot, which is an adaptation of the classic plot of a tragedy, and the consequences of the disintegration of moral order, and the fatal effects of a lust for power?

Comparisons are odious, as the expression goes. But merely by using the title Macbeth, Nesbo set himself up for inevitable comparisons by readers.

Where he gains a bit on Shakespeare is in his use of the form and in his characterizations. Firstly, as opposed to a play, which is limited in the extent to which characters can be built up, Nesbo fully describes and animates each character in the book. It is a cast of characters, but they are, individually, quite interesting and their actions are convincingly motivated. Also, the deaths are pretty grisly, with lots of detail of where the holes are (!) and what the rats are feasting on (!!) and how the blood pools. Nesbo is very good with blood.

“Lennox didn’t answer. He was studying the growing pool of blood seeping out of the young man’s body toward him. There was something strangely beautiful about the shapes and colors, the sparkling red, the way it extended in all directions, like red balloons.” (p.340)

The translation of the moral dilemmas, from kingship in ancient Scotland, to political and legislative power in industrialized Scotland, is also interesting. The morals and values are current and will resonate with many readers. The round-and-round-and-round arguments about who should kill who and why, are like rather gruesome chess games. The morals and thinking of the characters have a common theme – their need for and use of very bad drugs.

Nesbo’s language, in this novel, is less business-like than in his other books, simply because he has more room for manoeuvre – it is quite long at 446 pages. He introduces the first scene in quite a creative way, following, as an omnipresent third-person observer, a drop of rain making its way into the miserable town. The image of the drop of rain falling on people at various times is repeated – the town always seems to be unhealthily foggy, smoggy, filthy, wet and cold. He also excels in the descriptions of the misery of the place.

Why Macbeth?

But, does it work? Should you read it to better understand Shakespeare’s famous but depressing play? Should you read it just as it stands, as a crime novel? Like I mentioned at the start, it would be better to read if you know nothing of the play and have no quotes in your mind. Then it would be the excellent, thrilling and very dark Nesbo in full swing. And it is most certainly Nesbo’s homage to Shakespeare.

I suppose that Nesbo, at this time in his career, has had so many best-sellers that he can afford to experiment with his writing. I would still like to know why, though. Why Macbeth, why now? Is the novel a metaphor for something in the world today? (It is set in Scotland, not Norway, Nesbo’s home, so it may not be a critique of something happening now in Norway.) As usual, I will not be searching the Internet for answers. The text, after all, should stand on its own merit.

Does it end the way the play does, given that many of the characters live or die like in the play? That’s for you to find out. I will not spoil the ending. But in this case, it’s more around the process of reading to get to the ending, than about the ending itself. And it is a cleverly thought-out process. Go on, read it, it’s a win-win; it will be good for you to get (re)acquainted with Will Shakespeare, and Nesbo is, yet again, masterful.

Header image: By Ivandrei Pretorius; ✓ Free for personal and commercial use ✓ No attribution required

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