Land of Marvels foreshadows Iraq debacle

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      Land of Marvels. By Barry Unsworth. Nan A. Talese, 304 pp, $30, hardcover

      Novelists love archaeologists, and not only because both are concerned with creating plausible fictions. An archaeological setting immediately places the narrative in storied terrain, and the broad shoulders of the seasoned digger are capable of supporting vast quantities of metaphorical freight—especially if those colonial shoulders are aided by a train of native bearers.

      Which, of course, is the case in this archaeological fiction, set in the land that would soon become Iraq.

      John Somerville, Barry Unsworth’s archaeologist hero, is a typical Edwardian abroad: reticent and repressed, passionate about his obsessions and indifferent to everything else, well educated but strangely blind to social nuance. He’s a wealthy Englishman who means to do well by others, but in Land of Marvels he’s at sea in an ocean of stones, lied to by an oil-hungry American, and eventually blown up by an Arab, albeit unwittingly.

      How much of Tony Blair we should read into this is a very moot point.

      It’s quite clear, however, that Unsworth is using fiction as a way to explain events in the cradle of civilization since the first Gulf War, and the long-established conditions that lead up to the current debacle.

      Land of Marvels is contained entirely within the first half of 1914, shortly before the shot heard ’round the world. Mesopotamia is still part of the Ottoman Empire, but the pashas are only vaguely aware of its oil. England and Germany covet this mephitic fluid, however, and they’re playing the Great Game by covert means. The Yanks are sniffing around, too, and when an American prospector lands in Somerville’s camp, tragedy nearly ensues. When it does, though, it comes from a different direction altogether.

      This isn’t entirely a shock; if Land of Marvels has a flaw, it’s that Unsworth’s plot tramps inexorably forward. Surprises are few. But the British author’s language is beautiful and detailed, especially when he’s describing the unearthing of Somerville’s buried quarry, a palace dating back to 600 BC.

      That empire is long gone, of course, while the Ottomans and Somerville’s real-life peers exist only as history. The implicit message here is that the Americans and the oil men will fare no better, but that subtext only adds depth to this enjoyable and enlightening drama.