Unsworth novel looks at earlier rivalry over Iraq

Mon Jan 5, 2009 11:11am EST
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By Mike Collett-White

LONDON (Reuters) - Imperial ambition, imminent war and the rush to secure resources are the main themes of a new novel by Booker Prize-winning author Barry Unsworth set in the pre-World War One region of the Ottoman empire that is now Iraq.

Unsworth, who won the 1992 Booker for "Sacred Hunger," said "Land of Marvels" was partly an examination of power, the abuse of power, and the tendency of empires -- from the Assyrians to modern-day America -- to overstretch themselves.

"It's always a tendency of empire to overreach and overextend," the 78-year-old told Reuters in a telephone interview from his home in Italy.

"Whether it leaks away or ends up in conflagration, it always comes to grief. American economic imperialism was just beginning toward end of the First World War."

Central character Somerville is a British archeologist excavating a long-buried Assyrian palace in Mesopotamia during the twilight of the Ottoman empire.

As the site begins to yield important finds, Somerville dreams of personal fame and fortune, but his project is jeopardized by the German-built Baghdad Railway which appears to be heading straight for the dig.

Somerville is joined by Elliott, an American geologist posing as an archeologist who is really prospecting for oil on behalf of a U.S. firm, while British major Manning, acting as a cartographer, seeks tribal leaders' support in the event of war.

WAR CASTS SHADOW   Continued...