From Unsworth, conflicting fantasies in the desert

By Matthew Peters
January 25, 2009
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"Men are distinguished by the power of their wanting." So claims the narrator of Barry Unsworth's 1995 novel, "Morality Play."

"Distinguished" here may be taken to mean "brought into clear sight." Unsworth's considerable talents as a writer of historical fiction lie in his ability to bring his characters' desires into clear sight; to bring life to the page; to strike a composition between his instinct for drama and his intelligent feeling for irony. His gifts are common to good novelists, and not only to good historical novelists.

Early in Unsworth's new novel, "Land of Marvels," Somerville, an English archeologist overseeing an excavation in southern Mesopotamia (now Iraq) in 1914, discerns some men on horseback approaching as he stands near the site. Somerville steps out into the open when "the figures were near enough to be distinguished." But in this novel, as in Unsworth's past work, figures are distinguished to the reader in proportion to their struggle to distinguish each other: their motivations, origins, systems of morality. (One of the horsemen, Jehar, Somerville's assistant and intelligencer, knows there is "no possibility of knowing what was passing through the other's mind as he stood there" even as he keeps the Englishman "under observation.")

This theme is lent a deeper irony because the story is played out against the complex workings of international diplomacy in the months before World War I. Somerville's excavation lies in the way of a planned railway line, partly financed by German interests. It has important strategic implications, not only for the Ottoman owners, but for all the great European powers.

When Somerville becomes aware of the historical importance of the excavation, he imagines he might be placed among the great archeologists. But his aspirations are increasingly harried by the approaching railway and by the rise of European and American interest in the oil-rich earth of Mesopotamia.

Somerville lives in a residence near the site with his coolly dissatisfied wife Edith, his able young assistant Palmer, and Patricia, a recent graduate from Cambridge University whose suffragette views contrast with Edith's detachment from political life. Visitors include Jehar, who sees his relationship with the English archeologist as a means of securing enough capital to marry, Manning, an English Army officer and spy who lives in Mesopotamia in the guise of a land surveyor, and, later, Elliott, an American geologist (posing as an archeologist) who is working to ascertain the prospects for oil exploitation.

At a remove from these characters in his residences in London and Constantinople is Lord Rampling, whose complex amorality and spreading influence are central to the novel, and brilliantly realized by the author. Rampling is a shipping magnate, frighteningly rich (his wealth and power intimidate the English ambassador to Constantinople), who sees little distinction between his own potential financial gain in investing in the railway and Britain's strategic opportunities in acquiring a foothold in Mesopotamia.

Like so many of Unsworth's characters, Rampling is an uncommonly good talker. He convinces the English ambassador, solely through the force of his rhetoric, that there is nothing immoral in raising the false hope in Somerville that the railway might be diverted from the excavation.

Later in the novel, when Elliott's eloquence transfixes the excavation party (and in particular Edith), Somerville glumly reflects on how the American's "easy manner and . . . command of vivid detail" show up his own tendency to "downplay everything, to understate, to avoid the dramatic." Somerville, too, is outshone on the verbal level, and Elliott begins an affair with Edith soon afterward.

Unsworth's relation of events is impressively crafted, and the parallels between Mesopotamia in 1914 and modern-day Iraq are deftly struck. Still, what remains most securely in the reader's mind at the end of this powerfully told novel is the danger of storytelling and rhetorical power among his characters.

But Unsworth's own gifts for storytelling are in clear sight, and his habitual irony rarely dissolves.

Matthew Peters is a freelance reviewer who lives in England.

LAND OF MARVELS By Barry Unsworth

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday,

287 pp., $26

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