Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Land of Marvels

The main character of Barry Unsworth's 2009 novel Land of Marvels (reviewed in the New York Times here) is John Somerville, an archaeologist doing an Assyrian dig shortly before World War One begins. At one point, he ponders the reign of Ashurnasirpal II, in a passage that makes clear what contemporary issues were on Unsworth's mind as he embarked on a novel set in what would one day become Iraq (which, it turns out, is the novel's last word):

Some change in the human spirit here, not in the doing but in the telling, the pride, some ugly twist of soul towards a new idea of supremacy. How? From where? Why among these people at this time? Bred by conquest, like an appetite that grows from feeding? With the blessing of their god Ashur to lend them a sense of mission, bloodshed would become a form of devotion. Since Ashur was above all other gods and the king was his earthly embodiment, there would be a duty to impose his cult, carry light into dark places. The light they had carried had been cast by the flames of devastation. They too, the light bearers, had ended in that same fire.

A later passage returns to the same considerations:

This story began with the second king called Ashurnasirpal, the first of them all to boast of his power to inflict suffering, the first to make this power the symbol and test of kingship, the first to aim not merely at conquest and plunder, as had his forebears, but at the permanent subjection of the conquered peoples, changing the very nature of the state, from one rich and strong within its borders and content to be so to one that gloried in dominion, ruthless in its greed for territory and vassalage, a policy that was to be followed by all his successors down to the last days, down to the fires in which the empire perished.

On the basis of these two passages, one of the concerns of Unsworth's novel is a variant of "those who don't know the past are doomed to repeat it," and the doomed party here would be today's United States, doomed to burn in the very fires of devastation that have been dominating its policies over the last nine-plus years.

But a novel that leaves it at that would hardly be worth commenting on. There is an American character in the novel, Alex Elliott, a geologist who, for strategic reasons involving oil, is pretending to be an archaeologist attached to Somerville's working party. This is a character who is marked in many ways as untrustworthy; in fact, he is even apparently selling his services as a geologist to the Americans, the British, and the Germans all at the same time. And this ambiguous figure is the one who actually states the principle of history: "As someone wiser than I has said, if we ignore the lessons of the past, we will be condemned to repeat our mistakes." He says this at the end of a dinner-table soliloquy about the Hittites—but of course he is not really an archaeologist at all, but a geologist who has boned up on archaeology in order to be able to pass as an archeologist, and he is not interested in the mistakes of the past but in the possibilities of the future, a future that, as he foresees, will be dominated by oil. This quotable quote from "someone wiser than" Elliott is thus deeply ironized in the novel, and any straightforward reading of Unsworth's implicit comparison of the Assyrians and the Americans is called into question by the novel as a whole. The comparison stands, of course, but Unsworth is both establishing the parallel and fictionally exploring its implications and imprecisions.

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