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Originally published January 15, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 16, 2009 at 3:29 PM

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Book review

"Land of Marvels" shows what a tangled web we've woven

"Land of Marvels" is Booker Prize-winning author Barry Unsworth's novel set in the tumultuous era before World War I, when Iraq was being carved into its current form and the region was a hotbed of political intrigue. Unsworth reads Saturday at the Seattle Public Library's main branch.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Barry Unsworth

The author of "Land of Marvels" will read from his book at 2 p.m. Jan. 24 in the Microsoft Auditorium of the Seattle Central Library, 1000 Fourth Ave. Free. Co-sponsored by the Washington Center for the Book and the Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600; elliottbaybook.com).

"Land of Marvels"

by Barry Unsworth

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 287 pp., $26

Nothing lasts forever — not peace, not oil, not empires.

The parties vying for stakes in the resource-rich and geographically strategic region we call Iraq could have taken the lessons of history more seriously when they decided to slice and dice the old Ottoman Empire in the lead-up to World War I. Would their hunger for expansion, into a land cursed with colliding visions, be worth the cost in human lives and political instability that surely would follow?

One can't help but ponder the what-ifs while reading British author Barry Unsworth's intrigue-fueled historical novel "Land of Marvels."

It's the spring of 1914 and archaeologists from the West are in a mad dash to extract as many artifacts as possible from promising archaeological digs at fabled Mesopotamian sites such as Nineveh and Babylon, in what is today Iraq, before the predicted onset of war across Europe.

Among the wide-eyed excavators is John Somerville, who is badly in need of financing to continue his research. But his competition isn't just other scientists.

Somerville lives in constant fear of a German-built railway that might threaten his research fields. Regular surveillance reports from a shifty local named Jehar only deepen his suspicions. But oil interests are also scouting the area, including a slick American geologist angling on behalf of U.S.-based Standard Oil.

Meanwhile, emissaries from Western countries busy themselves striking deals over resources and land rights in lush Arab gardens under the blazing desert sun one moment, and dispatching spies to keep watch on each other the next. They are positioning themselves, "naturally in a spirit of partnership and cooperation," Unsworth explains with a touch of sarcasm, for that "day of reckoning, a division of the spoils" after the crumbling Ottoman Empire loses its grip on the region.

The spoils: relics, oil, textiles and prospective transport routes for the engines of 20th-century culture, commerce.

The attitude is made clear in the inner thoughts of the British ambassador, Lord Rampling: "In this dangerous place that Europe had become, to protect your interests, you must seek constantly to enlarge them; who held back, who played too safe, would fail and die, and the earth would cover him over." But the system of "partnership and cooperation" those nations established proved as convoluted as a North African kasbah, with double-dealing and back-stabbing around every mazelike turn.

No one in "Land of Marvels," it seems, is above brute ambition, certainly not the paranoid archaeologist Somerville, whose team is poised to unearth an Assyrian royal sarcophagus. "He would join company with the great (archaeologists) of the past, so much revered, Layard, Rassam, George Smith," Unsworth writes. "He would be famous; he would be in demand."

Power and prestige await the players in this grand game, provided the desert sands, layered with the ruins of other once-mighty, now-vanquished empires, don't become their graves too.

The relentless quest for empire and influence, in lesser hands, might make the characters in "Land of Marvels" seem like two-dimensional pawns in a geopolitical chess game. However, Unsworth's portrayals are sensitive and, to an extent, empathetic, giving the story a humanity it otherwise would not possess.

Unsworth, a Booker Prize winner for his slave-trade epic "Sacred Hunger," told an interviewer recently he wanted "Land of Marvels" to illustrate "the seeds of ruin that are always there from the beginning in this reaching out for control and aggrandizement."

But Unsworth isn't just spinning a good historical yarn here. "Land of Marvels" holds up a mirror to our own grand and maybe misguided ambitions in a region that is no less explosive, no less paved with grand and dubious intentions today.

Tyrone Beason is a writer for Pacific Northwest Magazine.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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