The British writer Barry Unsworth creates fiction animated by his prodigious imagination, which roams to far-off places and times. He is perhaps best known for "Sacred Hunger," his novel about the slave trade, which shared the 1992 Man Booker Prize with Michael Ondaatje's "The English Patient." But beginning with his very first book, "The Partnership," Unsworth showed a penchant for the exotic locale in a different era. Later, "Morality Play" showed him adept at the genre of murder mystery, unsurprisingly in his case located six centuries ago. Now approaching 80, Unsworth gives us this new thriller, which revisits the time and place of his first novel: the last days of the Ottoman Empire.
In a way, to call "Land of Marvels" a murder mystery or thriller is to undersell its considerable qualities. There is mystery aplenty -- and murder -- but there's a lot more going on here, as is always the case with Unsworth. The book is imbued with local atmosphere and informed by sound knowledge of the history and the culture of this particular corner of the Turkish Empire: Mesopotamia, or what we now know all too well as Iraq.
But Iraq had no national identity at the time "Land of Marvels" takes place, right before World War I. Then it was a mere gleam in the eye of various greedy European superpowers licking their chops over it. At this juncture, what particularly attracted France, Britain and Germany to this corner of the Ottoman world was its strategic importance. The kaiser was building his Berlin-to-Baghdad railroad, connecting his German Empire to Ottoman Turkey (soon to be his allies in the coming conflagration), all the while aiming a dagger at Britain's lifeline to the jewel in its imperial crown, India. France and Britain were already looking forward to the inevitable collapse of "the sick man of Europe," as the Ottoman Empire was contemptuously known then, and to dividing its Middle Eastern possessions into distinct spheres of influence.
Into whose lap would Mesopotamia fall? Oil was on the horizon too, but mostly in the eyes of visionaries who could already see its enormous potential, looking forward to the day, only around the corner as it turned out, when ships, airplanes and automobiles would run on it. All these threads show up in the dialogue and action of Unsworth's latest novel, his 16th.
Archaeology is the foreigner's ticket into Mesopotamia, a useful cover for all manner of diplomatic and commercial chicanery. John Somerville, the central figure of "Land of Marvels," is a bona fide archaeologist, passionate in his determination to discover and reveal a long sought-after sarcophagus. But his genuine mission is exploited and manipulated by wily diplomats and unscrupulous businessmen for their own very different ends. An American geologist attaches himself to Somerville's project: The Briton is persuaded to give him cover, believing that it is a price worth paying for the support he will get from his own government in return. As things turn out, treachery and double-dealing abound, with the result that the devil's bargain costs him dearly, wreaking havoc on his marriage and mayhem and destruction just when he has succeeded in accomplishing his archaeological goal:
"Somerville heard the tremendous roar of the rushing oil and gas without knowing what it was. It seemed in these first moments like the feared arrival of the locomotive train, multiplied a thousand times. He went through the aperture in the doorway, moved aside the boards that covered the entrance to the anteroom, and began to mount the steps he had discovered so recently and with such joy. The sound grew louder, deafening. He became aware of intense heat and a terrible stench of decay as if some huge creature were rotting somewhere in the night above him. . . . He had some confused notion of retreating, as if to find safety in the tomb, but even as he turned to descend again, the river of fire found the entrance to the shaft and the trenches, swooped down upon him in a threefold stream, consumed him in seconds as he stood there, swallowed up the god Marduk in the anteroom, surged through the opening in the stone doors, flooded into the burial chamber, melted the alabaster vases in the alcoves, swept stinking and shrieking into the sarcophagus, and -- in less time than it would take a moth to die in a candle flame -- put an end to the long and patient vigil of the bones."
Would that all the writing in the novel were as good as that -- or as aptly metaphorical. Too often it is stiff with wooden dialogue and obvious plotting the reader can see coming a mile off. So this is not one of Unsworth's very best efforts. Still, there is enough going on here that rings true -- if too often obvious -- to justify the reader's attention. And it is relevant to today as well. As one of the villains ponders at its conclusion:
"But his true success, the accord for which he and his partners had been working in secret for several years, together with members of the government and the high military command, came in May 1916 with the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which defined British and French political and economic interests in the postwar period, when -- as was hoped and believed -- the Ottoman Empire would be dismembered. By this agreement Britain was to gain complete control over lower Mesopotamia from Tikrit to the Persian Gulf and from the Arabian boundary to the Persian frontier. This vast territory, which had never been home to a single nation, she was to rename Iraq."
Be careful what you wish for.