The past, William Faulkner wrote, is never dead and isn't even past. He might have added that the present, at least in fiction, is always present. Just as the past keeps creeping into our contemporary lives, so do writers and readers like to insinuate our current preoccupations into stories about what went before.
This kind of sly time-bending is a hallmark of the novels of Barry Unsworth. Born in an English mining village in 1930, he's the author, since 1966, of 16 books, many of which range across time and space from 12th-century Sicily (The Ruby in Her Navel, 2006) to the last days of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century (The Idol Hunter, 1980). Like all fiction, Unsworth's historical novels both reflect on and are influenced by the age in which they were made. Land of Marvels returns to territory he has covered already -- Mesopotamia in the beginning of the 20th century -- while illustrating, through the story of an archaeological dig, the way time's layers "were jumbled up and the dawn of history confused with the day before yesterday."
The year is 1914, and the setting is an archeological mound called Tell Erdek, located about 100 miles from the left bank of the Euphrates River, in what will eventually become western Iraq. Excavations like this are going on throughout the region, conducted by archaeologists from France, Germany, England, and America, all of them anxious "to get out of the earth as much as possible, before it was barred to them."
What's the urgency? Only that the European nations, on the brink of war, are all intent on grabbing pieces of territory as the Ottoman Empire disintegrates. As a Turkish commissioner puts it, "We see that the British have designs on Mesopotamia as far as Basra, the French have their eyes on Syria, the Russians are seeking to absorb Armenia." Meanwhile, the Germans are building a railroad, designed to link Constantinople to the Persian Gulf, whose path threatens to cut directly through the heart of this particular excavation.
In addition to the greed for land, there's a hunger to begin tapping Mesopotamia's vast oil fields. The race is on to obtain prospecting rights: with oil about to replace coal as the world's major fuel source on land and sea, "he who owns the oil will own the world," Unsworth writes. Sooner than anyone here might imagine, "the day will come when oil will be more desired, more sought after than gold."
To make the geopolitical personal, Unsworth introduces a cast of engaging international characters who are all trying to maneuver through these tumultuous circumstances. At the center is John Somerville, the 35-year-old British archaeologist in charge of the Tell Erdek excavation. After years as an assistant on previous digs, this is his first opportunity to lead an expedition, and as he has failed thus far to make any major discoveries, it may well be his last. Somerville is hardly the hero he or his demanding wife, Christine, had expected he would be. With his funds running low and the railway's advance looming, he's feeling anything but optimistic.
It doesn't help Somerville's cause that everyone involved at the site is stewing with self-interest, including his scholarly young assistant; his Bedouin informant; an officious British major; and the resentful Turkish commissioner quoted above. The anxiety reaches a crescendo when several fateful events coincide: Somerville suddenly unearths what looks to be the royal palace of the last king of Assyria, while the American geologist sent by a calculating British industrialist to pinpoint the location of nearby oil fields makes some crucial findings of his own, managing at the same time to capture the imagination of Somerville's disenchanted wife.
The conventional storytelling elements of Land of Marvels are mostly pretty solid. When the book impersonates a thriller, the action is thrilling, although its momentum doesn't truly get going until the end; when it plays at being a romance, it's genuinely romantic. The characters are unfailingly lively: Somerville's hard-to-please wife feels contempt for his assistant because "there was no splendidness in him," while Lord Rampling, the British industrialist meddling in the region's affairs, reflects that "accusations of mismanagement and incompetence brought out a strain of patriotism in his fellow countrymen like almost nothing else."
If there are moments when Unsworth's narrative feels a little clunky -- it can't quite reach the level of unforced radiance in Sacred Hunger, his novel set aboard a 19th-century British slave ship that shared the Booker Prize in 1992 with Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient -- there's a good reason to forgive him. That's because his story is much larger than its specific details might suggest. He's not just writing about the overreaching and aggrandizement of the rivalrous European powers but about imperial greed through the centuries; not just about the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire -- "one of the greatest and most enduring empires the world had ever seen" -- but about the termination of every empire.
Without being didactic or trite, Unsworth uses the archaeological mound to show how intimately the ancient past and the quotidian present are fused: at Tell Erdek, they both lie just under Somerville's feet. At one point, he reflects on
...the powers that had marched and countermarched across this land of the Two Rivers: Sumerians, Babylonians, Hittites, Assyrians, Medes, Chaldeans, all bent on conquest, all convinced they would last forever, building their cities and proclaiming their power, empires following one upon another, their only memorial now the scraps that lay belowground, which he and his like competed in digging for.
It's a long story with shifting particulars, this rise and fall of empires, each built atop the shards of another, each deaf to the warnings of the ones before it, each caught up in what the writer Will Self has called its own "centrifugal strivings." But it is always the same story. What distinguishes Unsworth's tale of evanescence is the implicit way he links archaeology and fiction, proving that once the present has leaked away into the past, after the same lessons have been forgotten all over again, "what chiefly remained was a story." --Donna Rifkind
Donna Rifkind's reviews appear frequently in The Washington Post Book World and the Los Angeles Times. She has also been a contributor to The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The American Scholar, and other publications. In 2006, she was a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.
Read an Excerpt
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...
From the Hardcover edition.