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Jonathan Yardley on 'Land of Marvels'

A search for treasures in the Middle East races against approaching war.

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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, January 11, 2009; Page BW15

LAND OF MARVELS

By Barry Unsworth

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Doubleday. 287 pp. $26

Barry Unsworth's immensely intelligent and entertaining new novel takes place in 1914 in what was still known as Mesopotamia. It was under the control of the Ottoman Empire, but that ancient Turkish state was in the process of falling apart, and the nations of the West -- which by the end of that year would be embroiled in world war -- were competing for its strategic territory and its vast resources of oil, the incalculable value of which was only beginning to be understood. That much of this territory is now known as Iraq is not incidental to Land of Marvels, but the book is offered as background to what has happened there in recent years rather than as a politically inspired commentary on current American policy.

Unsworth is now 78 years old, and Land of Marvels is his 16th novel, but if he's lost a step along the way, it certainly isn't evident here. Not only does he confidently steer a complicated narrative populated by numerous characters, all of them believable and interesting, but he displays an impressive command of archaeology and geology, difficult subjects that are at the center of his story. The archaeologist is John Somerville, an idealistic, naive Englishman who is supervising and underwriting an ambitious dig that thus far has yielded little of consequence. The geologist is Alex Elliott, an ambitious, unscrupulous American who is looking for oil and serving a number of masters. How matters play out between the two is at the heart of the novel, though there is much more to it than that.

Mesopotamia is a beehive of archaeological activity "where French and German and British and American archaeologists [are] digging and tunneling into mounds pretty much like this one" that Somerville has chosen at a place called Tell Erdek: "Some were making important finds -- and the recurrent awareness that [Somerville] was not among these fortunate ones was like the intermittent throb of a sore tooth -- but all were in haste, no matter what the place, Tell Halaf, Tell Chagar, Khorsabad, Nineveh, Babylon. Haste, in this spring of 1914, to get out of the earth as much as possible, before it was barred to them." They are looking for relics of the past; others, like Elliott and those whose interests he allegedly represents, are looking for the fuel of the future, what Elliott -- a true believer in oil if not much else except himself -- calls "the greatest boon ever bestowed on the human race."

Somerville is accompanied by three fellow Brits -- his wife, Edith, his assistant, Palmer, and a young woman named Patricia who soon becomes Palmer's fiancée. Somerville is occasionally given information of dubious value by an Arab named Jehar, "a Bedouin of the Harb people" who, at 34, has "become a person who postponed his pleasures, planned ahead," especially as regards Ninanna, the 15-year-old girl he hopes to marry. Much of this information has to do with the Baghdad Railway being built nearby, "financed by the Deutsche Bank, designed to link Constantinople to the Persian Gulf." Somerville is obsessed by the conviction that the railroad is "aiming at him," that it will destroy Tell Erdek before he can complete his excavation there. He knows that Jehar frequently lies to him about the railroad's progress, though to what end he has no idea, but he also wonders about himself:

"Once again the question came to him, sickening in its quality of irresolution: Was he not a much worse liar, a real liar, one who told lies to himself? Deep within him did he not really want this railway track to come crashing through his mound, or close enough at least to put paid to any hope of further excavation? Convenient, a salve to his pride, if he could lay the blame for his failure on the incursion of the line. If the failure were seen to be his, it would reduce his chances -- already not great -- of finding a sponsor, raising money for other digs. His own money was running out; there would not be enough for another season."

Then his luck begins to change. He extracts "slightly more than half of a circular ivory plaque, broken across diagonally, showing the head and right foreleg of a lion." He is puzzled because neither the material nor the design is typical of the period he believes himself to be exploring, and even more puzzled when another article -- a stone slab -- raises similar questions. The deeper he and Palmer go, the more he becomes convinced that the site is in some way connected to the Assyrians, with whom he has been fascinated since boyhood, "the empire that had seemed to him a paradigm of all empires," one that gave them "domination of practically all of the world they knew and . . . the development of a ruthless militarism that had made their army the most feared and efficient fighting machine that world had so far seen."

Somerville becomes so convinced of the potential importance of his dig that he goes to Constantinople to ask the British ambassador, whom he had known slightly in school, to persuade the Germans to direct the railroad away from Tell Erdek. When he arrives, he is puzzled to find that the ambassador is accompanied by Lord Rampling, a rich, powerful and abidingly cynical man who has no interest in archaeology but a great interest in oil. He and the ambassador convince Somerville that they will see to his ambitions -- they have no intention of doing so -- but in exchange they insist that he agree to take on Elliott in the guise of a fellow archaeologist when in fact he will be there as "an expert in petroleum geology, to have a look around."

Everyone wants Middle Eastern oil and the power it promises. While Somerville studies the empires of the past, Rampling and his like are trying to build empires of the future. Patricia, who is smart and thoughtful, puts her finger on things when she tells Palmer that "something has been set in motion that can only end in destruction" and that Somerville sees it "coming straight for him." When he expresses skepticism, she replies:

"It must be distressing to be living at a time when people like [Somerville] -- and like you too -- people trying to put things together, make sense of things, add to the sense of human community, are facing a contrary spirit of dismemberment and destructiveness that is terribly strong and pervasive. It is a kind of brutality that goes under the name of realism, and it is alive and well in Britain. You can call it the spirit of commerce, or the spirit of empire, or the élan vital. At Cambridge I made a special study of the Whig administrations of the mid-nineteenth century and their dealings with Belgium and Russia, and what Lord Palmerston said during his time as Foreign Secretary has always stayed in my mind. I've forgotten a lot of the stuff but not that. 'There are no longer permanent principles, only permanent interests, and we pursue these to the exclusion of all else.' That's more than half a century ago, but nothing has changed."

Nor, needless to say, has it changed since then. Land of Marvels can -- and I believe should -- be read as a corrective to the arrogance and overweening self-confidence that led the United States into the morass of Iraq, but it also is a reminder that nothing is forever. Somerville, who may indeed march in the "army of the gullible," has a far keener understanding of history's realities and truths than those men pursuing empire in the underground oceans of oil: "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."

Land of Marvels can be read for that lesson, one as old and familiar as "Ozymandias" but forever in need of repetition, but it also can be read as singularly skillful entertainment. Its characters are real, its prose is fluid, its sense of place is pervasive, and its ending is exactly right, on a note of loss, survival and irony. All in all, a lovely, memorable book. ·

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.


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