Over the course of his 43-year, 16-novel writing career, Barry Unsworth has demonstrated a considerable knack for producing historical novels of timely pertinence. In 1992, for example, the year that six days of riots erupted in Los Angeles after four white police officers were acquitted of using excessive force in the act of arresting Rodney King, a black man, Unsworth won half the Booker Prize – the other half went to Michael Ondaatje for The English Patient – for a novel that in its unsparing portrayal of life aboard an 18th-century slave ship looked back to the colonial and commercial origins of racial tensions in North America. With its description of a multicultural utopian settlement established in Florida by the survivors from among the ship’s cargo and mutinous crew, Sacred Hunger also tentatively explored how things might have begun to turn out differently. In 1995, the year that Rosemary West was jailed and Myra Hindley theoretically became eligible for parole, Unsworth was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Morality Play, a medieval take on the media circus that surrounds a woman accused of child-murder.
Now, as America’s first black president is promising to ‘leave Iraq to its people and responsibly end this war’, Unsworth looks back to the war’s early 20th-century colonial and commercial origins. ‘Iraq’ is the last word of his new novel, withheld for nearly three hundred pages though evident throughout just below the surface of the narrative, the punchline that anyone can see coming. Land of Marvels is an altogether more genteel affair than Sacred Hunger, perhaps because, at least among the English middle classes, the early 20th century was a more genteel time than the 1750s. John Somerville, a youngish English archaeologist, digging in Mesopotamia in the spring of 1914, thinks he may have discovered evidence that would definitively resolve a number of uncertainties in the history of the late Assyrian Empire. Since those uncertainties are still unresolved more than 90 years later – no one knows whether or not King Sinsharishkun survived the sack of Nineveh by the Medes and Chaldeans in 612 BC – Somerville must either be mistaken, or doomed never to publish his discovery. As almost always with historical fiction, several strata of dramatic irony underpin Unsworth’s story.
Somerville is too fixated on his work to consider possible parallels between the final decades of the Assyrian Empire and British imperial decline, though the comparison is unavoidable for readers of the novel. We may know that the Baghdad Railway, under construction by Germany and a threat to Britain’s grip on trade between Europe and the East, can be included among the causes of the First World War, but it is of concern to Somerville only because the proposed route runs through the middle of the mound he is excavating. Not that there’s any particular reason he should be more interested in geopolitics than he is, except that his ingenuous monomania leaves him exposed to the machinations of more worldly and unscrupulous characters.
He’s not much of a character himself, in any sense of the word, with little to him besides his ruling passion. An only child, whose father ‘had made a modest fortune in the Manchester cotton trade’ (a trade which, as it happens, a century and a half earlier had bankrupted the owner of the slave ship in Sacred Hunger), he had to wait until his parents died, biding his time at the family firm, before he could sell up and indulge his long-harboured desire to follow in the footsteps of the great 19th-century Assyriologists: Henry Layard, Hormuzd Rassam, George Smith. Now in his mid-thirties, he is married but childless, and fast running out of money. His wife, Edith, who is with him in the Middle East, fell instantly in love with the fervour of his ambition on the evening they met, but has since become disillusioned with him. She believes that a woman’s role – because it is the role she desires – is to provide feminine support to a strong man, and her husband is falling sadly short on his side of the bargain.
Not even Unsworth seems all that interested in this lacklustre pair, writing as he does with far greater relish about his villains. In a quixotic attempt to divert the course of the railway safely away from his precious mound, Somerville goes to Constantinople to ask for help from the British ambassador, whom he fagged for at school. They meet at an ‘ancient and beautiful wooden yali’ overlooking the Bosphorus. This belongs to Lord Rampling, an ageing high priest of capitalism, stinking rich, with considerable holdings in a number of shipping and oil firms. His face is ‘florid and equable, the dark, inquisitive eyes undimmed below dishevelled eyebrows’. (Unsworth is good on eyebrows: those of the Ottoman official keeping an eye on Somerville’s dig are ‘jet black and arched in shapes so rounded and precise that they seemed artificial, as if painted on’.) He’s quite the dandy – ‘dressed with his usual care in a suit of shantung silk of a very pale blue colour and a pearl-grey shirt, also of silk, with a fashionably narrow collar’ – though not homosexual, despite what the ambassador thinks when Rampling puts his hand on his knee. Rampling gets his kicks from making women ‘behave with abject obedience’: ‘So cheered and invigorated was he by … his restored hope in the workings of capital, that he had decided to get some girl brought in to take her clothes off and do what she was told.’ Unlike his sexuality, his wickedness is never in doubt.
Rampling promises Somerville that he’ll talk to the right people about the route of the railway, if Somerville will do something for him in return. A young American geologist, Alex Elliott, has been hired by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company to do some prospecting for them in Mesopotamia. But they don’t want the Ottoman government to get wind of it, and Somerville’s dig would provide Elliott with perfect cover. Somerville all too readily agrees. Elliott is no more to be trusted than Rampling is, however, and his ability to outsmart the florid old Englishman prefigures the rise of America as the dominant imperial power in the region, merely the latest in a long line of empires stretching back to the beginning of history – British, Ottoman, Roman, Macedonian, Persian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Sumerian – none of which anyone expected to fall, until it did.
Arriving at the Somervilles’ dinner table, Elliott immediately gets into an argument with his host about the relative merits of their professions. Somerville says that his work ‘is about people who once lived in the world and not about commodities’. Elliott replies that people and commodities are inseparable: ‘Tea is a commodity, hundreds of thousands of people in your British India get a living from it who would otherwise starve. In the African slave trade people were commodities, it was one and the same thing … Oil is a commodity, right, but it is the future of humanity, it will change the lives of millions.’ Not always for the better, he doesn’t add – dramatic irony strikes again. If Assyrian artefacts buried in the desert are the key to the past, the oil buried beside them is the key to the future.
As for the reference to the slave trade, one of the cleverer aspects of Sacred Hunger is the way the African characters go from being seen only through the predatory eyes of their European captors to having parts of the story, once they have been freed, told from their various points of view. This isn’t entirely unproblematic, since it implies that captivity and subjectivity are incompatible, but at least it works from a formal point of view: their emancipation happens both in the story and, at the same time, in the way that it’s told. In Land of Marvels, however (and the irony this time is surely unintended), the novel’s indignation at the treatment of people as commodities is undermined by the way Unsworth marshals his characters to make his point: forced into their predetermined roles, they can seem more like allegorical instruments than human beings.
The Somervilles are offset by two younger English people at the dig: John’s assistant, Harold Palmer – the echo of Len Deighton is presumably accidental – and the daughter of a friend of Edith’s, Patricia (no surname), just down from Girton and full of daring ideas about women’s suffrage. Edith is shocked when Patricia announces that she intends to join the Women’s Social and Political Union (run by ‘that appalling Pankhurst woman’). Palmer has a more formal education than his autodidact employer: a degree from Oxford and the ability to read cuneiform script. Somerville is one of the last of the 19th-century gentlemen amateurs. His anxiety about the railway, and even more so that of the British firm with a monopoly on river traffic between Baghdad and Basra, can be seen to stand more generally for any attempt to cling to an old way of doing things in the face of irresistible new technology (such as the printing press or the internet).
Edith is smitten with Elliott, seeing in his ardour for oil something resembling what she had fallen for and now feels the absence of in her husband; history repeats itself here, too, the passion soon giving way to severe disappointment. Major Manning, a sunburned British army officer with a bristling blond moustache, making survey maps of the region and, more covertly, trying to buy the allegiance of ‘tribal leaders’, is rather less impressed from the start. His views are shared, or mirrored, by a man called Spahl who turns up not long after Elliott, claiming to be a Swiss newspaper reporter interested in Somerville’s work. Around this point Land of Marvels takes on a more than passing resemblance to an Indiana Jones movie, if with a more muddied moral compass and no guarantee of a happy ending. The deus ex machina is, inevitably, oil, unwittingly unleashed by Jehar, ‘a Bedouin of the Harb people’ who brings Somerville regular news of the railway’s advance, when he concocts a madcap scheme for raising the hundred gold pounds he needs to get married.
Comic relief arrives shortly before the denouement in the form of a pair of Swedish members of the Society for Biblical Research. Mr and Mrs Johansson are solemnly engaged in the business of finding archaeological evidence to prove the veracity of the stories in the Bible. ‘“Take Sodom and Gomorrah and the Cities of the Plain,” Johansson said. “Members of our society have located these cities, all five of them. They have found balls of brimstone embedded in a wide area of ash near the Dead Sea.”’ Even the Johanssons turn out to be tainted by capital. They have acquired a 99-year lease from the Ottoman government for four acres of land on what they believe to have been the site of the Garden of Eden, where they intend to build a hotel.
The other characters all find the Swedes ridiculous, but in a sense what they’re up to isn’t so very different from what Somerville’s doing: fitting the fragmentary circumstantial evidence to a story he wants to believe in. The Johansson pair are farcical partly because of their complete lack of doubt. ‘Neither of them has any sense of metaphor,’ Patricia says. ‘I’m a member of the Anglican Church, I go to communion, but I can spot a myth when I see one.’ There’s a similar distinction between Unsworth and Somerville: the novelist at least knows that the stories he’s making up are made up.