January 5, 2009 / 4:16 PM / 11 years ago

Unsworth novel looks at earlier rivalry over Iraq

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.


Through personal rivalries, the book reveals how, nearly a century ago, some of the world’s great powers vied for influence in a region strategic for access to the sea and mineral wealth, and the growing likelihood of war only raised the stakes.

“I have always been interested in power of one sort or another, the abuse of power, the bullies and the victims,” Unsworth said.

“I did have America in mind. The verse from Kipling at the beginning which applied to Britain in the 1890s could also apply to America today to some extent.”

He quotes Rudyard Kipling describing the threat of the British Empire’s demise, including the lines:

“Far-call’d our navies melt away —

On dune and headland sinks the fire ...”

Unsworth said his starting point for Land of Marvels was the Baghdad Railway project, which would have connected Baghdad with Berlin and increased Germany’s access to the region’s resources.

“I transferred it into a kind of threat,” he explained. “The war is coming, the line is coming.”

Another main theme for Unsworth was that of false identity in a story where virtually nobody is who he or she seems to be. He concludes the novel with an afterword on the fate of the characters following an explosive ending.

First reviews of Land of Marvels have been largely positive.

“This is not one of Unsworth’s very best efforts,” wrote the LA Times. “Still, there is enough going on here that rings true — if too often obvious — to justify the reader’s attention. And it is relevant to today as well.”

The novel is published in January by imprints of Random House, owned by German media group Bertelsmann.

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Editing by Paul Casciato

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