Somerville, a British archaeologist, is excavating a long-buried Assyrian palace. The site lies directly in the path of a new railroad to Baghdad, and he watches nervously as the construction progresses, threatening to destroy his discovery. The expedition party includes Somerville’s beautiful, bored wife, Edith; Patricia, a smart young graduate student; and Jehar, an Arab man-of-all-duties whose subservient manner belies his intelligence and ambitions. Posing as an archaeologist, an American geologist from an oil company arrives one day and insinuates himself into the group. But he’s not the only one working undercover to stake a claim on Iraq’s rich oil fields.
Historical fiction at its finest, Land of Marvels opens a window on the past and reveals its lasting impact.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Random House|
|File size:||2 MB|
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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...
Reading Group Guide
1. Land of Marvels centers on some central themes, such as fidelity, justice, power, honesty, and accountability. How does Land of Marvels depict these themes? Is it optimistic?
2. Is Land of Marvels making the argument that human beings, no matter their station, gender, ethnicity, etc, are all driven by a compulsive urge to satisfy their own self-interest? How are the main characters driven in this way and do any find salvation?
3. Do any of the competing interests in the story, especially those at Tel Erdek, take precedence for you? Is one more important than another? Considering the collision of archeology, rail, and oil — do any have a legitimate claim to the land?
4. Can you explain the inherent contradiction in Somerville’s attitude toward history? Why does he obsess over Tel Erdek, while simultaneously kicking pieces of pottery around like stones? For Somerville, what makes a rare artifact more important than broken pieces of pottery?
5. How does the historical context affect your sense of race and ethnicity? And after watching Somerville interact with the workers and Jehar, etc, do you feel our racial history has changed much in light of the West’s relationship to the Middle East? Are we considerate? And, are the characters necessarily products of their racial dynamics and histories, or do they act on an entirely individual level? If so, to what extent?
6. How does Jehar’s relationship with Ninanna compare to those of the Westerners in the story? Land of Marvels iterates that Jehar has turned his life into a story. What does this mean? Does it make his love for Ninanna and his dealings with Somerville more complicated? By all accounts Jehar has done this purposefully, why do think he has chosen to “make his life a story”? Does it protect him?
7. With the pervasiveness of duplicity in the story, does anyone act as a moral compass? How can we determine right from wrong in this atmosphere? Is that even possible?
8. This story is more than just historical fiction: it is also a tragedy. What are the characters’ tragic flaws? What leads to their undoing?
9. Jehar reflects on the Land of Two Rivers, and how the land has had many inhabitants: Sumerians, Babylonians, Hittites, Assyrians, Medes, Chaldeans — all bent on conquest, all convinced they would last forever. Does this reflection seem relevant considering the US invasion of Iraq? Has anything changed? If not, do you believe it will?
10. What are the roles of the female characters? Do they have any real responsibilities? Do you feel they were marginalized in comparison to those of the male characters? Or is this indicative of the historical moment they were apart of? Also, do you feel the female characters were reduced to objects of affection and/or sex?
11. The relationship between Edith and Patricia symbolizes the collision of two reigning world views on gender at the beginning of the 20th century. While Patricia corrects the men and asserts herself, in a “progressive” manner, Edith believes Patricia is out of order, that women should know “their place”. Yet, Edith is the one that has the affair with Elliot, and Patricia is the one that settles for domestic bliss with Palmer. Do you think Edith’s infidelity is a form of liberation for her? Or does it demonstrate a condemnation to unhappiness? What of Patricia? Are their paths opposite? Is Patricia repeating the past that is represented in the chaste domesticity of Edith at the beginning of the story?
12. In the end, when Somerville finally opens the ancient coffin in the pit at Tel Erdek, Unsworth writes, “Edith and Patricia came forward now and joined the men.” Is this a significant moment? What were they joining? We are given the sense that until this moment, they were not allowed to share in the intimate and momentous discovery, but now they join the men and look into the coffin, face to face with history. Are the women now part of this history, that hitherto they were excluded?
13. Knowing the perilous end of the story, should Somerville still have started his dig? He seems to be one of the only characters that must lead head on into doom. Where he is stubborn and arguably arrogant and idealistic, the others have very particular goals in mind. What is Somerville’s goal, and is it somehow more aimless? What’s its purpose in the story?
14. The “dig” is a clear allegory for history itself: how we write it; what it takes to preserve it; the notion that what we can learn is buried deep in the past, or literally underground; the idea that vast treasures await our mining of them. What does Land of Marvels “dig” up? Is it like an archeological dig through social and political history? How so?
15. It is widely regarded that fiction has the capacity to teach or inform its audience. Did Land of Marvels teach you anything new or enlightening about the history of the Middle East? What did you learn?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The Ottoman Empire was vast. It lasted from the 13th century to the 20th century. What western empire can say the same? At its height, it encompassed much of southeastern Europe, western Asia and north Africa. Science, literature, the arts flourished during what was known in Europe as the "dark ages." But like all things, it ground to its end in the early 20th century and the vultures gathered to pick the bones.Land of Marvels is the story of events leading up to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire on the brink of WWI, in one small corner of its holdings. It's also the story of human greeds, emotions, and blindness. Beautifully written, the story captures perfectly the multiple viewpoints of its characters without making any of them sound too villianous (although clearly there are some good possible villains).The writer's use of parallelism among characters and events as well as the layers of meaning brought in by both the characters and the reader, who knows what must have happened to the region (more or less). The ending took me by surprise and was a heartbreaker in many ways.I highly recommend it for an insightful view of a region that in some ways, never had a chance to determine its own future.As a northwesterner, it had one bloop that stopped me in my tracks. Clearly, Unsworth isn't familiar with the history of this part of the country, but I forgive him.
Take yourself back to the tense times in the Middle East just before the outbreak of World War I. The world is beginning to fully wake up to the need for oil in the new modern world and the importance of securing a steady supply. The world powers are manouvering for access to the newly discovered desposits in what will become modern day Iran.However, as many of us will know from ancient history, Mesopotamia was the birthplace of civilisation, and a British archaeologist, Sommerville, dreams of finding fame and reknown. His wife is wondering about her marriage, while Sommerville's assistant has fallen for a young female research assistant. This little community of Brits is living together and tensions are heightened when the British government sends an America geologist posing as an archaeologist to work with them. Sommerville is in a constant state of nerves as he fears that the building of a German railroad will cut through his digsite.Outside this community there is Jehar, a local who carries messages for Sommerville and dreams of making a life with the woman he loves. It is his desire to earn her bride price, along with Sommervillles fear of the approaching German railroad that ultimately leads to the surprising climax of the novel.This novel skilfully mixes politics, intrgue, espionage, history and human nature. The growing desire for oil in the early twentieth century is still present today, especially in the context of the Middle East. The novel is an easy read, although there are scholarly passages on geology and Assyrian history. The characters are what make this novel shine.
Barry Unsworth's "Land of Marvels" is set in the Middle East in 1914, in an area that would become Iraq. The novel takes you into the desert with Somerville, an archaeologist searching for his big discovery. Somerville is in a race against time and circumstance--the railroad is about to be built through his dig site and all of Europe--and by extension, the Middle East--is on the edge of war. Will he make his big discovery, or will forces larger than him--the war, the railroad, the quest for oil--get the better of him. Unsworth's novel is full of historical detail and political intrigue. It is well written and complex. However, it is missing, for me, a critical element--character development and emotion. Unsworth's characters are flat--nothing that happens to them over the course of the novel changes them at all. This surprised me, for Unsworth is a novelist that was praised for his character development. The characters in the novel also lack emotional depth. It was unbelievable to me that any of these characters cared about each other because they were all so cold and unfeeling. I would recommend this book to people interested in Iraq before WWI and the political intrigue of the era. However, if you like books with more emotion and heart, I would recommend that you look elsewhere.
It is 1914, and Barry Unsworth's The Land of Marvels opens on a frustrated archeologist, John Somerville, digging in Mesopotamia. The narration then alternates between Somerville and those who make his acquaintance (a cast of con-men and murderers). Some bent on glory, others greed, but all wish to exploit the land of modern day Iraq. By the story's end everyone will have compromised themselves as oil mania consumes the region.The plot is good, but the novel reads more as a political commentary about modern international diplomacy and worldwide oil greed. No country is rendered favorably. As the novel strives for importance, much of the story takes a co-starring role. The characterization is lacking as the male characters are all one note, the women are portrayed as dull and naïve. The story doesn't find a steady rhythm, so it is slow to engage the reader, and it only begins to pay off in the last few chapters when everything does tie up nicely. Devoted Unsworth fans, or those interested in Mesopotamian history will likely find this novel the most enjoyable.
I chose to read this book because I once dreamed of becoming an archaeologist, and having lived in the region, I was especially interested in the early history of the search for oil. Let me start out by saying that the book is definitely a better read than the flap copy might lead you to believe. The narrative focus on this small group works extremely well, and serves to underscore the myriad of competing interests focused on the region at the time.Unsworth is a skilled writer, and all of the characters (no matter how unlikeable) are fully drawn and add value to the story. The main problem I had was that I really just couldn't get myself to like any of the characters, despite their backstories. Even when I found their actions completely understandable, I still didn't really feel that invested in the outcomes. In the end, the utter futility of the entire enterprise was crystal clear, lending itself so well to disturbing comparisons to the current situation in Iraq.This was a solid read, 3.5 stars for me just because I never felt that emotional connection to the characters. I will certainly look for Unsworth's Booker Prize winning Sacred Hunger to read.
The setting of Barry Unsworth's Land of Marvels is the Middle East, just before the start of the First World War. The story weaves together a British archeological dig, a German railroad, and an international struggle over oil. When reading fiction, I usually look for characters I can empathize with and a carefully developed sense of place. I found neither in this book. None of the characters were particularly likable and I found that I kept wishing the author had included a map so I could better visualize what was happening. Rather than focussing on characters or setting, Unsworth's story is plot driven. Tension builds as the railroad, the oil, and the dig slowly converge upon one another and collide in a dramatic conclusion.
I don't usually review books I don't finish but when the book is sent to me as a Review Copy I feel obliged to at least give my reasons for not liking or not finishing the book.I couldn't finish this book. I made it to page 69 but found the book just wasn't to my tastes. The word thriller is used in the description and I guess I just expected some thrills. I really couldn't concentrate on the book at all. I love the time-frame, early 20th century, and that is what made me think I would enjoy this book but there was too much ancient history, (Sumerians this, Assyrians that) and too much politics. Not my cup of tea at all. Perhaps it will be more to your liking.
Passion, mystery, history, espionage¿ what more could you want in a novel? I was unfamiliar with Barry Unsworth¿s work before I was offered this novel to review. I have to say that I was not disappointed. At some points, it felt like this book was written directly according to my tastes. I¿ve always been interested in archeology, but I haven¿t read much fiction about the topic. This book was a great blend of history, technical archeology talk, as well as personal conflict and relationships.The characters are nowhere near perfect, and that¿s what makes them great. They are real, and you almost wonder if they once walked around where Unsworth could observe them. I always enjoy a novel when I can watch characters grow, and this is no exception. However, this does not mean the characters improve. Much of this novel can be read with an apathetic eye to the decline of morals, values, and personal character. There are tricks, trades, and desperate attempts to find what they crave most in the world. Once again¿ this is real.My only critique of this novel would be that scenes with Rampling, and indeed many of the highly technical discussions of oil, can feel a bit drawn out and overwhelming. The archeology talk is fascinating because it is history, and it tells a story. I almost feel as though I read more about oil than those in the oil industry have even read, and none of it really told a story. It felt like a dramatic break in the story, and fell flat in my eyes. That¿s disappointing, because the rest of the story was exciting and dramatic. From the very first pages, I was worried about the railroad, the dig site, the relationships between characters¿ everything. To stop and read political discussions on oil felt like hitting a brick wall.This story is still a good one, and I think anyone interested in the artifacts of history would enjoy it. The characters are the best element. Unsworth, at least in this novel, shows a unique ability to create extraordinarily real people, which he then uses to advance his plot.
Picked this up along with several other library book possibilities for a 'U' author to read. Didn't expect it to grab me but it easily hooked me in for the first half of the book. After that though I found it easy to put down again. Everyone else seems to concur that the ending is faster moving than the beginning but I lost interest as the book went on. Probably one of those 'It's not the book, it's just me' things!
Can't really fault this book. Other reviewers seem to dislike the slow pace at the beginning but, for me, this just added to the depth and set up the themes brilliantly. In fact there was a slight danger of slipping into farce when the momentum started to get going in earnest towards the end but this was cleverly avoided. The theme of falsehood and truth was given a thorough workout on many, many different levels - international relations, historical, personal relationships, war, politics (I could go on). One of my favourite reads of the past few years.
In the early part of the 20th century many foreign interests intersected in the Middle East. Barry Unsworth sketches with preternatural skill a British archeologist fruitlessly toiling for years over a dig he finds it increasingly difficult to sustain financially. Stress is added by German railroad and American petroleum contractors encroaching on his stake which he is desperate to believe will yield results shortly. The years leading up to the Great War in Europe were prime for many men of industry, particularly for those in petroleum prospecting. Unsworth shares stories of how those times might have looked, using historical events to bracket his imaginings. It is his characterizations of personalities that ring so true—Lord Rampling, the British industrialist who tramples truth “for the glory of the British empire” while being out-deceived by a loping and sun-bleached American engineer who plays representatives from all countries against his own company’s interests. The tension builds to the last pages, when we learn WWI has begun in Europe, and when that storm has passed, the land we’d seen as a large fragment of the disintegrated Ottoman Empire has become something quite new—a vast new country called Iraq, which had never before been home to a single nation. Erudite, stimulating, large in scope and small in detail, this is a novel to restore one’s interest, should it ever flag, in fiction.