In Hesiod's eighth-century Greek poem about the origin of the gods, the Theogony, the Muses boast that they know how to tell "lies like the truth." The foundation of myth, of poetry, of storytelling is the telling of lies that compel belief or, at least, the suspension of disbelief. Sometimes we tell stories to beguile others, and sometimes we manage to convince ourselves with our own storytelling. Can we ever tell the whole and unadulterated truth, or is reality always our version of it, shaped and distorted by our need for structure and meaning, by our desires and fears?
Questions like these lie behind most of Barry Unsworth's fiction. He's interested in storytelling and what compels it. He's interested in how people reconstruct events and find meaning in them. One of his most popular novels, Morality Play (1995), is a medieval mystery in which a band of traveling players investigate and reenact a murder. The murder mystery is a perfect genre for Unsworth, because it's about reconstructing events, telling a story that makes sense of them, finding meaning in the past.
His 2004 novel, Songs of the Kings, imagines the Greek army preparing to set sail for Troy, modernizing Homer in light of the build up to the Iraq War. It's about propaganda and the manipulation of the news—about "lies like truth" and the ways in which storytelling can shape events. Unsworth is also fascinated with greed and obsession. His characters are insatiable in their desire for money or power or knowledge. In his 1999 novel Losing Nelson, the main character is obsessed with the life of Admiral Nelson, and in particular with a specific incident in Nelson's career. His obsessive research, his obsessive need to shape events into a story, ultimately consumes him. Perhaps history repeats itself because we become trapped in stories of our own devising. Perhaps stories shape reality, rather than the other way around. We tell stories about the link between Iraq and terrorism, for example, and our obsession with that story makes it so. Stories can become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Land of Marvels is set in Mesopotamia—modern Iraq—in 1914, on the eve of the First World War. John Somerville in an archaeologist excavating what he hopes will prove to be a significant Assyrian site. Meanwhile, the German railroad is inching its way toward him, and he becomes convinced that it will destroy his work. Complicating matters is the intrigue of international investors who are prospecting for oil in the region, and making plans for how the Ottoman Empire will be divvied up after a war that seems increasingly inevitable. It's vintage Unsworth in its historical setting and its obsession with storytelling, and with obsession itself. Somerville is obsessed both with reconstructing the Assyrian past and with the looming threat of the railroad. That obsession shapes Somerville's narrative. In various ways, several characters in the book become convinced by their own stories, and those stories shape events.
There are big themes in Land of Marvels, about history and the rise and fall of empires, but it's a relatively small book. It moves quickly, both because of the excitement and suspense it generates and because, at times, it feels insufficiently fleshed out. I was left wanting more. The novel seems to rush headlong to its inevitable conclusion. For me, it lacked the texture and atmosphere and vividness of character that I find in some of my favorite "historical novels," like J.G. Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur or Louis de Bernière's Captain Corelli's Mandolin. Unsworth, like his protagonist Somerville, seemed too obsessed with how things would come crashing down.
Unsworth is a skilled writer who can speak volumes in small and carefully-wrought scenes, but the novel, being a literate version of an historical thriller, suffered slightly from heavy-handed exposition—the bane of thriller writers. How does the author provide the reader with important historical background information? He has the archaeologist explain it to his assistant, who has convenient gaps in his or her knowledge. Here's an archaeologist, Jack, and his assistant, Costas, in David Gibbins' The Lost Tomb, standing on the deck of a boat, about to dive for the wreck of the ship that brought St. Paul to Rome:
Costas was quiet for a moment, then squinted at Jack. "Remind me. What was the date of St. Paul's shipwreck?"Jack goes on to give a long and ham-fisted lecture on Roman history while he and Costas stand there in their diving gear. Unsworth occasionally falls prey himself to this unfortunate convention of the historical thriller, and I was distracted as I read by the annoying echo in the back of my head of Dan Brown explaining the Fibonacci sequence.
"Best guess is spring AD 58, maybe a year or two later."
"Put me in the picture."
Land of Marvels is a flawed novel, but it's also a compelling read, and definitely a cut above ordinary historical thrillers.