Barry Unsworth has always had an eye for the arresting historical setting – place being as important as time – and Land of Marvels is no exception: it is 1914 and we are in Mesopotamia, the Ottoman Empire is on its last legs and the great powers of Europe are scrambling for a piece of it, a state of mind that will soon lead to global war. However, this is not simply a novel concerned with broad historical themes of war and empire; but one equally interested with the ways in which individuals build narratives to understand and direct their lives.
Much of the novel is set in an archaeological dig where the discovery of a tomb is threatened by the approach of the railway. Somerville, the archaeologist, feels the railway is “aiming at him”, and these two opposing forces, one building relentlessly across the land, the other digging desperately down into it, create the dynamic of the narrative: culture and the desire to understand the past versus commerce and the intention to exploit the future. The railway is portrayed as an unstoppable force:
“Lord, the bridge is made, its claws have come to rest on our side of the Great River …It is all made of steel, is span is greater than any floods can reach.”
The excavation, on the other hand, relies on men working slowly and carefully:
“…there was the regular sharp impact of metal on stone and the softer sound, all-pervasive, as if the whole mound were afflicted by a scraping thickness of breathing, of the earth and rubble being shovelled into the baskets to be borne away.”
Somerville, awkward and uncertain, is opposed by Rampling, a “shipping magnate”. Rampling ruthlessly exploits Somerville, promising him he will protect his work against the encroaches of the railway in return for allowing an American geologist, Elliot, searching for oil to pose as an archaeologist. As the British Ambassador comments:
“But that would mean deceiving the poor fellow, lying to him, sending him away with false hopes.”
The search for oil creates an even more obvious parallel with the excavation. As Elliot says:
“What you are digging up is commodities, as I understand it, bits of pots and so on. Oil is a commodity, right, but it is the future of humanity, it will change the lives of millions.”
Both require careful observation of the surface in an effort to seek out what lies below. Somerville discovers the tomb when he sees “the rough shape of a circle, darker against the biscuit colour of the earth.” Later Elliot finds oil when he sees “a single shallow dome” which he takes to be a salt dome, suggesting oil trapped beneath. Elliot’s affair with Somerville’s wife is another sign that capitalism has the ruthlessness needed to replace erudition in the modern world being created.
However, a knowledge of history has its own advantages. When Palmer, Somerville’s assistant, talks about digging down through half a dozen empires, his fiancée, Pat, comments:
“And they all thought they’d last forever.”
Although apparently most appropriate to the ailing Ottoman Empire, this remark also foreshadows the demise of the British Empire, initiated by the approaching war.
The novel also examines the ways in which people create stories to bring meaning to their lives. Both Rampling and Elliot tell stories of the future which they feel they are bringing into being. Somerville and Palmer create stories for the objects which they find at the excavation. Most significantly, Jahar, Somerville’s Arab messenger, weaves a story of his own future with the woman he loves, Ninanna, in order to seduce her:
“…she would look closely at him, her mouth a little open, her dark eyes full of wonder, as she tried to picture these lands he spoke of…”
As the novel progresses, we see more and more clearly that characters are entirely absorbed in their own individual narratives, whether of patriotism, progress, greed or love. When they coincide, as with Jehar’s need to find money for Ninanna’s bride price and Somerville’s fear of the railway, they can have disastrous consequences. Somerville fails to heed the warning he observes in the ivory carving of a man and a lion which he finds at the beginning of the novel, and which convinces him that the dig is worthwhile:
“Once again it came to Somerville, as he continued to look closely down, that the victim was somehow collaborating in his fate, supporting himself on his arms, holding his face upwards, offering his throat.”
While the lessons of history, in an area where the West still seeks to use its influence for oil, are clear to see, it is what we learn about how we live our lives that is most striking about this novel.