Sunday, 10 June 2012

From Troy to Iraq: A Distant Mirror

by James Burkinshaw

American soldier in Iraq

Barry Unsworth (who died on June 5, aged 81) was undeservedly under-rated as a writer, primarily because his chosen genre, historical fiction, is so often associated with escapism. However, as he himself argued, the focus of his novels was always contemporary: “One is enabled to take a remote period and use it as a distant mirror (to borrow Barbara Tuchman's phrase) and so try to say things about our human condition – then and now – which transcend the particular period and become timeless”. While cultures, customs and environments change with the passing of each era, human fears, desires and frailties do not. 
Greek warrior in Troy

He won the 1992 Booker Prize for Sacred Hunger, a novel about the brutal eighteenth century slave trade (the “sacred hunger” being the profit motive that drives it), but also an attack on the Thatcherite values of 1980s Britain:“You couldn’t really live through the ’80s without feeling how crass and distasteful some of the economic doctrines were . . . The slave trade is a perfect model for that kind of total devotion to the profit motive without reckoning the human consequences.”  

Similarly, The Songs of the Kings (2002), seemingly a re-telling of the epic of Troy (in particular, Euripides’ Iphigenia) is a bleakly comic satire of the Bush Administration’s desperate manoeuvring (with the help of the Blair government) to build a case for war with Iraq. Central to the narrative is the cynical Agamemnon, prepared to sacrifice his own daughter to justify war with the Trojans. As the Guardian reviewer noted, “We may no longer make human sacrifices but we create plenty of media scapegoats. Unsworth’s Iphigenia does not die to absolve her nation. She dies to save their spin.” The king of spin is, of course, Odysseus, who “felt the excitement of the prospect, through words alone, of prevailing over another mind, using the fears and desires of that mind to disarm and control it.”  The amoral post-modernism of public relations (both corporate and governmental) is captured with cruel accuracy.

Barry Unsworth
(NY Review of Books)
Four years later, while the American occupation of Iraq was still unravelling, Unsworth wrote The Ruby In Her Navel, set in a twelfth century Sicily where communal tensions between Christians, Jews and Muslims are being exploited by fanatics and cynics following a blundering Western (crusader) military invasion of the Middle East. Again, the allusions to post-9/11 geo-politics and cultural tensions are inescapable. As a Byzantine artist argues, in the face of the attempt by land-hungry Norman knights to divide and rule by stirring up ethnic and cultural hatreds: “Think what an absurd and terrible thing it is to blame a whole people for everything that is done or said in their name.”

Born into a mining family in County Durham, Barry Unsworth was a contemporary of other northern writers such as Alan Sillitoe and Stan Barstow, but eschewed their consciously contemporary portrayals of working class life and thus escaped being bracketed with them as an “Angry Young Man” (a label Sillitoe in particular came to loathe). His peripatetic overseas teaching career drew him to the ancient Mediterranean cultures of Greece, Turkey and Italy, “countries” (he wrote) “where the ancient past is interfused with the daily present  . . .I remember being struck with wonder at the constant sense of continuity and connection, the reminders that lie in wait for you at every turn.”

Unsworth has been compared to Joseph Conrad in his preoccupation with the corrupting nature of empire (the empires themselves, in his novels, often rotting away, such as the decadent Ottoman Empire in Land of Marvels) and his exposure of the savagery beneath the brittle carapace of civilization. Unsworth himself cited William Faulkner as his great inspiration. Like Faulkner and Conrad, Unsworth was fascinated by liminality; many of his protagonists are spies, actors, sailors, slaves, soldiers --- outsiders, people who do not belong. There is an elegiac quality to his writing, a sense of the fragility and ephemerality of culture and identity.

The writer Sean O’Brien described Unsworth as “a distinguished member of the long and various tradition of English writer-travellers in the ancient world. Unlike some of its exponents, Unsworth has not been tempted into inert exoticism, though he is clearly drawn to the sensuality and glitter of Mediterranean light and landscape, to the textures of stone and water, which he can render with a poet’s rich economy. He is likewise drawn also to the sense of ancient mystery, of a world almost within reach.”

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