Katherine Bailey on Books
Book Reviews, Literary Essays


Reviews: Past Books Land of Marvels by Susan Sontag

The Crushing of Human Prospects:
Layers of Humanity and the Dark Game of Fate

  British writer Barry Unsworth’s Land of Marvels, another of his brilliant and authentic historical novels, powerfully depicts the villainous role of Western imperialism in Iraq’s history, offering readers a clearer understanding of the carnage of today’s Iraqi War. In the course of the narrative a minor character muses prophetically, “He who owns the oil will own the world; he will rule the sea and the land; he will rule his fellowmen. The day will come when oil will be more desired, more sought after, than gold.”

Equally well done is the theme at the novel’s core – the inexorability of fate. Unsworth illuminates the notion of fate at work on a grand scale through the archaeological viewpoint of history as an inescapable cycle that raises nations up only to relegate them to nonexistence. He illuminates the notion of fate at work on a smaller, human scale through his protagonist, 35-year-old British archaeologist, John Somerville, and a young Arab adventurer named Jehar.

Against this backdrop of imperialism and an archaeological dig, a cast of remarkably well-drawn characters lives out its respective fates. As in all works of authentic fiction the characters credibly change for better or worse due to the novel’s action. Also, Unsworth resurrects the very texture of the emotions involved in Somerville’s stormy relationship with his wife and in her adulterous liaison.

As the story opens it is March, 1914, just months before the outbreak of the Great War. Though he has spent years as an assistant at various sites throughout the Ottoman-ruled country of Mesopotamia, the dig at Tell Erdek marks the first time Somerville is in charge of an expedition. Carefully chosen, Tell Erdek has the advantage of water not far away that can be safely drunk after treatment, and the village is near by, giving Somerville access to a labor force. He has leased the land from the local sheikh, and he has had a house built, palatial by local standards. In his usual attire of broad-brimmed hat, long-sleeved white shirt, and knee-length khaki shorts, Somerville, early in the novel, appraises the vista: “the huddled mud-brick houses of the village, the dark tents of nomad herdsmen in the far distance, and the scattered heaps where communities of people had once lived.” Immediately we know that he is obsessed by this place where so much of his hope and his money are invested.

Somerville’s assistant is a young Cambridge-educated academic named Palmer who not only knows a great deal about field archeology, but is an acknowledged expert on Assyrian inscriptions, specializing in cuneiform (wedge-shaped figures.) In the course of the plot Palmer becomes engaged to Patricia, an enthusiastic and bright young member of the Tell Erdek expedition group who has very recently received a Cambridge degree. To the disappointment of both Somerville and Palmer, their consistent and professional digging at first fails to reveal anything of major interest. They make certain that their strategy at the dig is impeccable. As they descend they predictably encounter the Parthian, Byzantine, and Roman empires, and next, a thousand years of apparent non-habitation, followed by Aramaean potsherds, followed by evidence of devastation by fire. Below the ash of this conflagration they find the chipped, flint ax heads of Neolithic man. Yet, discouragingly, there is nothing that does more than reinforce what is already known.

They are diligently looking for walls. “Walls were of utmost importance; they could lead to rooms, to gates and portals, to temples and palaces. So far, however, they have found nothing but the foundation lines of humble and more recent habitations – Roman and Byzantine, not greatly interesting. The mound had seemed so promising. It seemed to indicate an important edifice lying beneath, perhaps a citadel or a palace or the tower of a temple. The debris from the dig should have been more substantial than the sun-dried mud brick fragments that they were finding.

In contrast to his positive connection with Palmer, Somerville’s relationship with his wife Edith is unhappy. Unsworth details Edith as a woman of “beauty, physical grace and self-containment.” Her decorum and sense of duty had attracted Somerville from the earliest days of their courtship. The daughter of a prominent London judge, Edith “was on the side of Britain, proud of the British Empire, which everyone knew was the greatest the world had ever seen.” Characteristic of the times in which she lives, she believes power, strength and passionate certainty to be male privileges, traits unattractive in women. Patricia’s outspoken opinions rankle her. Naively clinging to lofty schoolgirl notions, she accompanies her husband to Mesopotamia convinced that “he would reveal to the world a splendor from underground.”

As time passes Somerville knows himself to be a source of dissatisfaction to Edith. As his disappointments and secrecy increase, an awkward constraint settles between them. He wonders if she notices his formality, a sort of ceremoniousness that belongs to strangers rather than to man and wife. Somerville, it seems, cannot understand why their marriage is so difficult.

So expertly does Unsworth present the sensitivity and complexity of John Somerville that readers will closely identify with him and grieve at his fate. Inexplicably Somerville is predisposed to feel singled out for harm; he “was one who always believed in his heart that he was a target for God’s anger.” Though his tone of voice is charged with sincerity, his habit of repression consistently prompts him to downplay everything, to understate, to avoid the dramatic.

Somerville knew when he undertook the Tell Erdek project that for more than a decade Germany had been laying railway lines throughout Mesopotamia. Because it took five days for a steamer on the Tigris to travel from Baghdad to Bara, a distance that could be covered by rail in a single day, rail travel and transport, of course, made sense. Only months before his arrival, the Deutsche Bank had funded rail tracks to run to Baghdad and Basra, tracks that would be laid in close proximity to his dig. German surveyors and engineers were renting houses in the village and had appropriated some of his workforce to build storage sheds. Without a doubt the railway construction was a threat. It could put an end to Somerville’s excavation thereby dealing a mortal blow to his career.

Wanting to know more precisely what the railway builders had in mind, Somerville hires a Bedouin adventurer and fugitive from the law named Jehar to spy on the railroads for him. Unsworth explains that Jehar had left his tribe before reaching the age of 20 and hints at his lack of moral compunction and his disregard for authority. Jehar’s life was driven by a need to survive; he did what he had to do, and on occasion this meant theft and even murder. He had, in fact, spent six years working on the railway, first as a laborer and later as a courier along the line. Because he is an intelligent man he learned German quickly. Somerville recognizes this as a strong asset in a news bearer. Yet because it was that of an inveterate liar, Jehar’s gaze unsettles Somerville. Truth and falsehood are the same to Jehar. And his relish for drama and lack of diffidence about delivering bad news soon begin to irritate Somerville. “Storytelling came naturally to him;” Unsworth notes, “he had a gift for it, and the stories became true to him as he told them, as he embroidered them with detail.”

“Through all the vicissitudes of Jehar’s life,” Unsworth adds, “the needs of the moment had been all that counted with him – the one constant element.” But by the time Jehar, at age 34, goes to work for Somerville he has, quite miraculously, become a person who postpones his pleasures, who plans ahead. The marked transformation comes about because for the first time in his life Jehar is in love. The object of his affection is a 15-year-old Circassian girl named Ninanna, whose forbearers had fled south from Russia. Ninanna’s guardian is asking the formidable sum of 100 gold pounds for her, and Jehar is determined to raise the money. Through Somerville Jehar knows he can make money quickly.

Jehar is not Somerville’s only source of misgiving. At times, because his excavation is failing to reveal anything significant, Somerville harbors ambivalent thoughts about the proposed railroad: “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? [It would be] 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.”

In a swivel of fortune, however, Somerville’s endeavor begins to pay off. First a piece of ivory, next a clay-tablet fragment on which meaningful symbols are scratched, and, finally, a stump of a wall are discovered. With his faith in Tell Erdek reinstated, he concludes that it had been for a very considerable amount of time, the residence of Assyrian Kings.

Nothing could have pleased him more. It was the Assyrians who had made a conquest of his imagination from the very beginning of his study of ancient cultures. Somerville ponders the subject, reflecting on the amazing advance of a tribe from a narrow strip of land on the banks of the Tigris to domination of the known world. The Assyrians’ acknowledged militarism that had made their army the most efficient fighting machine in the world engrossed him, as did their wealth and splendor and surprising sudden collapse. He wanted to learn more. About Somerville, Unsworth remarks: “There was no room for doubt now; the anguish had been lifted from him. The rail line would not come to save him from failure and defeat, but to blast these new hopes of success. Finally, unequivocally, he knew it for an enemy.”

Jolted into action, Somerville departs for Constantinople to meet with the British ambassador to Turkey, a man he had been at school with. Determined to make the ambassador understand the importance of his recent finds and the prestige Tell Erdek would achieve for Britain, he tries to make him understand that it was not just a mound of earth that was in jeopardy, but a part of the very story of humanity. The ambassador and other officials both British and international do not, it seems, share Somerville’s passion for the history of the Assyrian Empire. An official states the hopelessness of Somerville’s request, reminding him that Europe “was on the edge of a conflict that would claim countless lives and in which Britain’s survival as an imperial power was at stake.” In the scale of things, he told Somerville, a railroad through a heap of antique rubble did not qualify for much regret.

Still, Somerville comes away believing he has an agreement, a quid pro quo. He would give employment at Tell Erdek to a British-sponsored American geologist who was in Mesopotamia searching for oil. The “job” on Somerville’s excavation would be a cover for the geologist’s activities. In turn the British Foreign Office would bring its full weight to bear on the Germans to divert their railway.

The vivid character of Alexander Elliott, the American petroleum geologist, is one of the most compelling features of Land of Marvels. Though impetuous, greedy and dishonest, he is a deep and intelligent thinker who is enthralled by nature. As he insinuates himself into the breakfast-table conversations at the Somerville residence, he is completely alive. Without forgiving her, we understand why Edith falls in love with him. Possessed with a crusading faith in the future of oil, Elliott informs the group that he “knows something about old stones…correction, something about old stones that act as hosts to petroleum.” He tells them that he is working for the Turkish Petroleum Company, “that is I am working for the British interests in the company.”

That statement is, of course, untrue. Not only a double-dealer, but a triple-dealer, he pretends to work for the British and for the Germans, but in fact he works for the American Chester Group, the parent company of Standard Oil. He has already accepted substantial sums of money from all three countries. Unlike Somerville, Elliott is a loquacious man, as indicated by his expansive comparison of petroleum to a genie. The analogy is one of Unsworth’s methods of underscoring the crucial role oil played in the background of Near and Middle Eastern imperialism.

“This genie isn’t vindictive or vengeful, he is a benefactor, he is the greatest boon ever bestowed on the human race. He will bring prosperity and ease of life to millions of people who have never heard his name. He will lighten their lamps, warm their houses, drive their engines. This genie will be the harbinger of a golden age.”

An expanding number of characters begins gathering around the Somerville breakfast table. Already charged with the intensity of Edith’s sentiments for her husband and her lover, the breakfast hour becomes strained. A Muslim individual named Fahir occasionally joins the Somerville group. While he is cordially treated, the Somervilles know he has been appointed by Turkish authorities to keep a careful eye on them. “We have too many friends and they all want a piece of us,” comments Fahir. “Britain, France, Russia. The sick man of Europe, you call us…a term of contempt…What do you want with a man who is sick? Do you help him get well or do you merely prop him up long enough to go through his pockets, while uttering hypocritical expressions of good will? Only Germany is a true friend to us, and she has shown this in various ways, one of them the building of the railroad.”

Fahir, indeed, is an avid supporter of the German railway. With a touch of hostility he points out that it will give the Turkish State direct trade routes from the Persion Gulf to Constantinople and the Black Sea. He predicts that the local population will see its standard of living tripled within three years of the completion of the line.

Somerville, to be sure, does not share this optimism, and he quietly counters Fahir’s remarks, noting that those who finance and control the line do not have the well-being of the local population or the integrity of the Ottoman Empire high among their priorities. The Somervilles both know well that the railroad’s capability for speedily moving troops and munitions to the head of the Persian Gulf is what attracts the Turkish government. In the likely event of war, such movement would threaten British communications with India.

As the conversation becomes heated, Edith guiltily recalls her mother’s words, “If there is a disagreement at a dinner table and if this is tending to be expressed other than politely and urbanely, it is always the fault of the hostess.”

Meanwhile Jehar is disturbed by his inability to come up with the payment for Ninanna. Her guardian seems eager to be rid of his charge, and there is a rumor afloat that at least one young suitor has accumulated the stipulated 100 pounds in gold. Unsworth again articulately highlights the idea of fate: “It was a pattern familiar to his [Jehar’s] experience and his general sense of the nature of life, the crushing of human prospects, just when they seem auspicious, by some stroke of fate, something not envisaged, unpredictable.”

When it becomes clear to all that British officials had not so much as lifted a finger in the effort to reroute the German rails away from Tell Erdek, Edith’s disaffection for Somerville exacerbates. Her husband has been duped. The painful thought comes to her that, “John was pathetic; he lacked what Daddy would have called a firm grip.”

With masterful characterization of his protagonist, Unsworth depicts an occasion when Edith and Elliott are intimately laughing together as Somerville, seemingly out of nowhere, advances toward them. He does not, however, even look in their direction. “And it was this, the habit of aloofness, something that belonged to him but was also assumed especially when there was a group to be faced, or greetings to be exchanged, that struck her anew as he approached.” Somerville finally glances at the pair and smiles with his usual irony and resignation.

Elliott returns from his daily explorations eager to talk to Edith about them. He usually finds her alone, and they spend an hour or so together. He was a good talker with an easy manner and a command of vivid detail. It was the marvels of geology that made her face light up. Different from the American women Elliott knew, Edith does not offer him eager encouragement but rather, “a sort of charged reticence that for him was full of erotic challenge.”

For the first time in his geological experience Elliott discovers deposits of rock salt. The salt in its rise has wrenched out of shape strata containing petroleum, forming perfect traps. The discovery excites him and imbues him with a sense of the miraculous – the nearest he has ever come to an ethical feeling. He ponders: “How many millions of years, how many floods and evaporations in the shallow sea that had once been Mesopotamia had gone to form these vast deposits of salt? In its slow, irresistible journey up to the surface, the salt would bend the layers of rock above it, bend them upward forming pockets where oil and gas would collect, trapped…between the salt and the enclosing rock.”

These exalted thoughts on the part of Elliott notwithstanding, Edith gradually sours on him. A warning bell sounds in her mind. “Doubts…had been gathering in her mind for sometime now, doubts about that fiery sincerity that Alex seems to exude from every pore.” Edith, it seems, knows that he is in the pay of the Germans, Britain’s great enemy. This increasing estrangement with her lover prompts Edith to admit to herself that “She and John were alike; they belonged in the army of the gullible. If her husband had been duped by British Foreign Office officials about a rerouted railway, she had fallen for Elliott, a man beneath contempt because he is consorting with the enemy just as the world is on the verge of war.

At one of Somerville’s increasingly rare appearances at the breakfast table, Edith looks across the table at him “with a sort of entreaty, conscious suddenly of how much she cared that his name and ambitions should be protected.” Typically Somerville is distracted and does not meet his wife’s gaze.

In this case Somerville’s air of distraction is warranted. For he now has conclusive evidence that his excavation site had been a residence of Assyrian kings for a very considerable period of time. He could actually pinpoint the very spot that had been an Assyrian township, the spot from which the great King Esarhaddon had issued proclamations. As he and his workforce have continued deep down a shaft buried within Tell Erdek, they have come upon something he has wanted so much to find that he had not dared to hope for it – an Assyrian burial chamber. Undoubtedly this momentous discovery sheds a totally new light on the last years of the Assyrian kingdom. Somerville – and Palmer with him – will go down in the annals of archeology. “He would be famous; he would be in demand; he would never again lack for financial backing,” explains Unsworth.

In a riveting denouement that is as richly layered as Tell Erdek, Somerville, seeing no other option as the rail line proceeds relentlessly closer each day, pays Jehar to dynamite the tracks nearest to his excavation. We learn earlier that Jehar is prepared and is goading Somerville to give the go-ahead for this rash action. Jehar has stolen a survey map from the nearby railroad shed and for a high price – perhaps 100 pounds in gold -- is ready to carry out the treacherous deed on Somerville’s behalf. Somerville is certain that key questions concerning the fall of the Assyrian empire can only be answered by a further search of Tell Erdek, a search that the railway’s incursion would prohibit him from ever conducting.

One morning Somerville addresses those gathered around the breakfast table, saying: I’d like to invite you all to come over to the excavation site at midday today. We will have cleared the entrance to the burial chamber by then. There is every sign that the tomb has not been disturbed. We expect to find a sarcophagus inside, perhaps more than one. I want you to be witnesses of what promises to be a momentous discovery.”

That afternoon with avid curiosity, Edith, Elliott, Palmer, Patricia, a British army officer named Manning, and a Swiss journalist named Spahl all descend deeply into Tell Erdek with Somerville. Manning and Spahl are newcomers to the Somerville bunch. Both men have been dispatched to Mesopotamia for the purpose of murdering Alexander Elliott. The British have sent Manning; the Germans have sent Spahl.

An aura of reverence and awe encompasses the group as they stoop within the ancient burial chamber. Somerville relates to them the amazing tale behind the two skeletons that are preserved within a sarcophagus. Unsworth, focusing on Edith and Somerville, records: “None of his hearers had made the slightest sound or the slightest shift in position. None of them had taken their eyes from him. He is in command of us, Edith thought…she had never seen her husband as a man with a gift for storytelling. And it was more than that, much more. His voice was quiet, but there was authority in his words, a kind of power emanated from him. And there was nothing assumed, nothing theatrical; he was entirely himself.”

Gradually everyone but Somerville and his wife returns above ground. Before leaving Edith kisses him, saying “John, you were wonderful; I was so proud of you.” A short time later a horrific three-way conflagration of Somerville’s excavation, the railway construction site, and an untapped oil field erupts. The last we see of Elliott, he is riding horseback, speedily making tracks through desert sands with Manning and Spahl on his heels. A page-turner to the very end, Land of Marvels keeps us in suspense over the fates of its characters.

On the theme of imperialism Unsworth’s imaginative history concludes with an ominous statement: “It was feared by some that this growing interest in the mineral resources of Mesopotamia would lead to political interference in the affairs of sovereign states and so to a policy of what was beginning to be called economic imperialism.”

Interestingly, Unsworth uses “Iraq” – that loaded designation – for the very first time as the final word in his novel.