Barry Unsworth Digs Into The 'Land Of Marvels'

Barry Unsworth

Barry Unsworth received the Man Booker Prize in 1992 for his novel Sacred Hunger. hide caption

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Read an excerpt of Land of Marvels.

Author Barry Unsworth's new novel, Land of Marvels, features an international cast of characters bumping up against each other in 1914 Mesopotamia.

Unsworth says the novel's setting — atop the remnants of the former Assyrian and Ottoman empires, in a place that would later become modern-day Iraq — contributes to the book's themes of power and its misuse.

"My novel is mainly about empire, about imperial ambition, the urge to dominate," Unsworth tells Weekend All Things Considered guest host Rebecca Roberts.

Ancient Assyria provided a special inspiration: "In its day, the Assyrian empire was the greatest the world had ever seen," explains Unsworth. "[But] it collapsed within a generation, and that seemed to me to sum up the nature of power, whether it goes up in flames or just leaks away."

Much of the action in Land of Marvels centers on the construction of the Baghdad railway, a line that Unsworth describes as running into the future, "toward the disasters we are familiar with now."

In the book, the railroad also happens to be bearing down on an ancient archaeological site. And added to the mix are various interlopers with designs on the region's oil reserves.

One character, an American named Elliott, poses as an archaeologist in order to scout out the oil. Unsworth says that the character's nationality was no accident.

"I think he combines two American qualities rather well: a kind of totally sincere faith in the commercial future, together with a totally sincere desire to profit from it," he says. "He's a mixture of truth and falsehood, inextricably together."

But more than anything, Unsworth says, his work is about questioning the language of imperialism.

"Those in power always find the right language," he explains. "I wanted the modern reader to ask himself or herself, 'What language is being used in our time? How is language being used to justify political ends that are not in themselves very praise-worthy or respectable?'"

Excerpt: 'Land Of Marvels'

'Land of Marvels' cover
Land of Marvels
By Barry Unsworth
Hardcover, 304 pages
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday
List price: $26

 

1.

He knew they would come that day or the next. Jehar had sent word. But it was only by chance that he saw them approach. He had risen soon after dawn, tense with the fears that came to him in these early hours of the morning, and fumbled his clothes on, taking care to make no noise that might disturb his wife, who slept in the adjacent bedroom, only separated from him by a thin wall. Crossing the courtyard, he saw that Hassan, the boy who kept the gate, was asleep under his blanket, and he took the same care to avoid arousing him.

By habit—it was the only route he ever took whether on foot or on horseback, though rarely so early — he followed the track that led for a half mile or so through low outcrops of limestone toward the hump of Tell Erdek, the mound they were excavating. This seemed to fill the sky as he drew nearer to it, black still, like an outpost of night. Then he saw a sparkle of silver from the floodlands in the distance and knew that the sun was showing behind him.

It was above the horizon by the time he reached the tell and bright enough to dazzle the eyes, though there was no warmth in it yet. He stood for a while in the shadow of the mound, strangely at a loss now that he was here, uneasy, almost, at the silence of the place, at the sense it gave of violation, this ancient heap of earth and rock and rubble, gashed and trenched for no purpose immediately apparent, as if some beast of inconceivable size had raked it savagely along the flanks. Before long it would resound to the thudding of the pick and the scraping of the shovel, the shouted orders of the foremen, the cries of the two hundred and more Bedouin tribesmen, who would come with their baskets and harness—valuable property, often fought over—to resume their antlike task of carrying away the loose earth and stones from the digging.

But it was now, as he felt the silence of violation in this place where so much of his hope and his money were invested, that he saw the men approach. News of the railway came to him in a variety of ways, but the reports he paid for were announced in the same way always: the dust of the riders, lit this morning to a glinting ash color by the early rays of the sun, seen far off across the flatland to the west. He knew in every detail the route they had taken: the rail yards of Aleppo, then Jerablus on the Euphrates, passing within sight of Carchemish, where Woolley and Lawrence had made the Hittite finds barely a year ago, then the desert steppeland rising and falling, dusted with green in this early-spring weather, scattered with mounds like this one, the tombs of long-dead cities. And so to this little swarm of dust in the middle distance.

It was the way the line would take, straight toward him, straight toward his hill, between the village where his workforce came from and the floodlands of the Khabur River. Sometimes he imagined he could catch the shine of the rails as they reached toward him. Mica, salt, asphalt, quartz, any glinting thing in the landscape might work this effect on him, even the fields of pitch where the oil seeped up, which were too far away to be seen at all, except in occasional, shifting gleams. It kept his worry alive, though he knew it for illusion; the journey on horseback from Jerablus, where the line had reached, where the Germans were building the bridge, took four days.

Sometimes it took longer, and Jehar would enumerate the reasons: desert storms, problems with the horses, attacks by raiding parties. He was grave-faced in recounting these things; his tone was charged with sincerity; further details were ready if required. But it was never possible to know whether he was merely inventing these episodes; such things happened on occasion to any traveler in these lands; why not, on this occasion, to them? The motive was clear enough — no secret was made of it — and it was this that made the accounts less than fully reliable: Jehar was seeking to extract a few more piastres for their hardships and their loyalty. He took care not to do it too often. He was a man of the Harb people; but he had traveled widely outside the tribal lands, and his travels had taught him that moderation, whether in truth or in falsehood, was likely to be more profitable than excess.

When the figures were near enough to be distinguished, Somerville stepped out into the open so that they should see him as they followed the track toward the expedition house. They dismounted at a distance of a hundred paces or so and left the horses in the care of one of their number. The others, headed by Jehar, walked toward him, inclining their heads in greeting as they drew near. None would have dreamed of approaching mounted when the khwaja was on foot. Jehar, as always, would be the spokesman. The others drew around him in a half circle. The hoods of their cloaks were thrown back, but they wore the folds of the headcloths still drawn over the mouth against the cold they had ridden through. They would say nothing, but they would keep a close eye on the sum handed over to Jehar; he was their employer, as the archaeologist was his, four being deemed a sufficient escort to ensure safe passage through lands in the main unfriendly, guard against ambush by day and depredation by night. Often enough, of course, they were themselves the raiders and despoilers; in their saddle slings they carried Mauser repeating rifles of recent make, weapons that had been issued to the Sultan's irregular cavalry units in Syria. But none of these men belonged to any unit at all, however irregular...

Jehar uncovered his face, which was handsome, narrow-boned, and level-browed, fierce in its serenity. "Oh noble one," he said in Arabic, the only language they had in common.

"Well," Somerville said, "speak out, why do you wait?" The delay, he knew, was more due to Jehar's relish for drama than to any diffidence about delivering unwelcome news.

Jehar raised his arms on either side. "Lord, the bridge is made, its claws have come to rest on our side of the Great River." He continued to gesture, lifting his arms higher, then lowering them to make the sweeping shape of an arc. "A great marvel, this bridge of the Germans," he said. "It is all made of steel, the span is greater than any floods can reach."

He looked keenly as he spoke at the face of the man before him, who had sustained the infliction of this news without change of expression. "Farther than ten throws of a stone," he said in a tone of wonder. "High in the sky, the sparrows cannot fly over it." He was disappointed by the other's failure to show feeling but not deceived by it; he was sensitive in certain ways and had understood very early in their acquaintance that the Englishman was one of those — he had met others in his time — whom Allah for reasons inscrutable to mortals had predisposed to feel singled out for harm. He was himself an optimist, blessed with a belief in his destiny. Only one such as he could set out to raise one hundred gold pounds, starting from nothing. This was the bride-price of the Circassian girl who filled his thoughts. He knew that this man was searching for treasure and was possessed by fear that the people of the railway would bring the line too close and take the treasure for themselves. It must be an enormous treasure, for one to spend so much on the finding of it. They had not found it yet; this was the third year they had come; they had dug down and down, but they had not found it yet...

"We were approached by a ghazwa of the Shammar people," he said. "A dozen men. They followed us for some miles and fired at us. We killed one and they fled, the cowards."

There was nothing in the attentive faces around him that could be taken to confirm or deny this story. Next time he spoke of it the Shammar raiding party would be fifty strong at least, the deaths five or six, and the encounter would already belong to the realm of legend.

"Now we will be pestered by his relatives with demands for blood money," Somerville said.

"No, no, they did not know us." For the first time Jehar glanced around at his companions, who all shook their heads.

"Well, we shall see. Now that the bridge is completed, have they started immediately to lay the rails on this side of the river?"

"No, lord, there will be some delay. New rails have come from the steelworks in Germany, they have come by sea to Beirut. Now they wait for the unloading of the rails and the transporting of them to Aleppo and so to Jerablus. They will bring the rails and the coal into the yards in Jerablus. All this will take time, perhaps ten days. Also, they lack timber. It must be brought from the north, from Urfa. This I was told by one whose word can be trusted. For this very precious information I gave him money from my own purse."

"But they had already laid some miles of track on this side of the river, even before they started work on the bridge. They were already engaged on it in my first season here, three years ago. Then the work was abandoned, the rails were left to rust. Now there are German surveyors and engineers here, they have rented houses in the village, they have taken some of our workpeople to build their storage sheds."

He paused, aware of having spoken too rapidly, with too much emphasis, aware of Jehar's eyes on him. There was always something unsettling in the man's gaze, something too intent. "Under our noses," he said. "They brought the stuff downriver." In fact the warehouses had been there already when he arrived in mid-February. The sight of them, the presence of the Germans, had been a grievous blow to him; before that it had been possible to hope that they intended to take the line farther north, toward Mardin. He said, "The sheds are stacked to the roof. Strange they should be waiting for supplies at Jerablus when they have the timbers and the rails stacked up here."

"But they are intended for this part of the line," Jehar said with extreme simplicity. "A railway is made in stretches, like a garden. When you grow palms, you plant here because the ground is easy. In another place you wait until you can make the ground better. Twenty piastres I gave him."

"I am not carrying any money," Somerville said. "I did not expect to meet you here. But I will remember what is owed. Four Turkish pounds as usual. We agreed at the beginning that I would not be responsible for your expenses."

He did not believe that Jehar had disbursed any of his own money, but in any case it would have been a great mistake to undertake to meet costs of this kind; he knew Jehar well enough to know that the costs would multiply. It was little enough he gave them anyway; how much Jehar would keep he did not know, but thought it probable that the others might get half the money to share among them, a meager amount but they found it sufficient; this job of escorting Jehar was much coveted, he had been told. "Well," he said, "in view of the delay at Jerablus you can take some days for your own business before setting out again. But I must be informed when they start again with the laying of the track."

On this, with low bows, the men retired to where their horses waited and turned toward the village. But Somerville was not given time to ponder the news. His two foremen were approaching, and behind them came the first of the workpeople, talking and laughing together. He moved forward to greet the two men, deriving comfort, as always, from the air of competence they carried with them, like an aura; they were united in it in spite of the physical dissimilarity between them. Elias, who was from Konia and Greek by birth, he had known for some years now. They had been together on a dig at Hamman Ali, south of Mosul, in the days when Somerville had been still an assistant. He had been delighted — and flattered — when Elias offered his services here. He was stout of build and corpulent, though quick and sure-footed on the ground of the site, with a round, good-humored face that could turn to fury with fearsome speed when he found something amiss, some slackness in the work. The other, Halil, was a Syrian, tall for an Arab and sinewy, with a stentorian voice and an expression of severity and melancholy.

Somerville had complete confidence in both and knew that they could be safely left to organize the groups and set the people on to work; there would in any case be little change from previous days in the distribution of the labor and the areas of excavation: Most of the people would be employed at different levels of the pit, which in three seasons of excavation they had dug down to a depth of sixty feet; others would be extending the lateral trenches in the hope of finding some remains of connecting walls. Walls were of utmost importance, even if no more than a few inches of them were left. They could lead to rooms, to gates and portals, to temples and palaces. So far, however, they had found nothing but the foundation lines of humbler and more recent habitations, Roman and Byzantine, not greatly interesting.

He was about to start making his way back to the expedition house when his assistant, Palmer, arrived, a sturdy figure in his white cotton suit and soft-brimmed white hat.

"I thought I'd come and see the work started," he said. "I didn't know you were here. Lovely morning, isn't it?"

Somerville assented to this but without much conviction. He liked Palmer and knew he was lucky to have an assistant who, in addition to knowing something of field archaeology, was an acknowledged expert on Assyrian and Sumerian inscriptions. But there were occasions when he wished — irrationally — that Palmer's looks might sometimes betray some faltering, even some hint of dismay, something to correspond to the extremely disappointing nature of their excavation so far. But no, he was always equable, his eyes gentle and shrewd behind the glasses, ready for the momentous discovery just around the corner. Of course Palmer was young, only twenty-seven, eight years younger than himself. And it wasn't Palmer's money that was draining away...

Excerpted from Land of Marvels by Barry Unsworth Copyright © 2009 by Barry Unsworth. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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