The esteemed British novelist Barry Unsworth has been writing historical fiction for more than forty years and needs no lessons on its pleasures or its pitfalls. He is master of a comfortable form, having covered ground from the fourteenth century to the African slave trade to the frayed end of the Ottoman Empire and World War I—a terrain he returns to now, in Land of Marvels. Here he constructs his story around a somewhat defeated British archaeologist named Somerville, working in what is now, one gathers, western Iraq, unearthing traces of an Assyrian royal palace. Somerville is electrified by his finds, but unfortunately, a number of implacable forces are aligned against his success: It is 1914, Europe is on the cusp of war, Mesopotamia is being ruthlessly divied up for exploitation, and the Germans are building a railroad that will destroy the site.
As a stylist, Unsworth displays a fine painterly touch, even as he spins out a complicated and historically meaty story. Of an old blind woman in Constantinople, selling grain from a tray to passersby to feed the pigeons, he writes, “Her fingers ruffled continuously in the grain; she buried her thin hands to the wrists in it, took it up in handfuls, poured it back in trickles into the tray, heaped it up in mounds, smoothed it down again.” Later, a single young woman, Patricia, compares herself with Somerville’s wife: “She had always felt a little in awe of Christine because of her beauty, her physical grace, her self-containment, which had some suggestion of sardonic judgment in it. Beside her, Patricia had felt plain and clumsy and untried.”
That striking word, untried, reveals a complete sensibility, appropriate to the era, and evokes exactly the situation the young woman finds herself in. Unsworth has also picked out the perfect moment, early 1914, and the perfect place, Mesopotamia, to show small figures—European and Asian alike—buffeted by global forces. Land of Marvels thus is a readable and informative book.
Despite that, however, I found myself, even amid my enjoyment, resisting the novel on moral and aesthetic grounds. Since so much of our serious fiction over the past two decades has been historical rather than contemporary, it will appear strange for me to say that historical fiction strikes me as fundamentally trivial or, at best, less important than fiction confronting the present, no matter how well crafted. Nevertheless, fiction focused on the past has become a kind of refuge for serious writers and readers alike. It has grown prevalent in inverse proportion to the diminishing sense that novels and novelists have any special cultural importance—a conviction now regarded as slightly ridiculous, but one that was unchallenged when Unsworth started his career in the mid-’60s.
Even very good historical fiction is, inevitably, genre writing; and while the best of genre writing—Chandler, say—can and should be regarded as literature, a literary culture that so consistently awards historical fiction over the more difficult and ever rarer novels that make an assault on the present is an anemic literary culture. It is worth noting that Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger, the slave-trade book, split the Booker Prize in 1992 with a more famous and rather gooey historical fiction, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. And since the late ’80s, a slew of such novels have won major awards, including a few with considerably more teeth in them, like Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day and Pat Barker’s Regeneration.
You might think that a novel set in Iraq in 1914 would be particularly telling today; that we would become somehow better informed about ourselves by seeing played out, at the sensual level of good storytelling, the origins of the disaster in the Middle East. Yet again, I found myself resisting this idea. Every educated person knows that the mercenary and rapacious policies of Europe and the US created monsters all over the colonial world—there is hardly a large-scale tragedy that can’t be traced back to them—but who understands now what happened to this country after 2001, when former radicals hung flags out their windows and almost all our political leadership backed the destructive invasion of Iraq, as did frightening multitudes of sensible Americans; or what British novelist can explain what happened to Britain, where you can’t walk around large cities without being watched and videotaped? Where are the writers who are trying to capture all this in fiction?
In Land of Marvels, Unsworth serves up types—many of them quite deftly drawn, but still never far from the familiar: a light-fingered and untrustworthy Arab; an officious and prideful Young Turk bureaucrat; a conniving and greedy British baron; a dim-witted Foreign Office man, recently knighted, from the best of the public schools; a dashing American oilman; Christine as the unfaithful wife who falls for him; and a young assistant archaeologist and his fiancée (the aforementioned Patricia), who one constantly fears will break into blowsy ballad, so much do they resemble, in their square-jawed earnestness, Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald.
Historical fiction feels lofty because it satisfies our current passion not for history itself, or for a more pleasant imaginary past, but for unchallenging writing. Such work masquerades as serious, a category once reserved for books that obviously mattered, writing that made a mad attempt at changing the reader, or the common language, or even the world.
Vince Passaro teaches writing and literature at Adelphi University. His fiction and criticism have appeared in many magazines and journals.