Sunday, January 18, 2009

Land of Marvels

In the Middle East very little is as it appears on the surface, an essential lesson for anyone working or doing business there. Those spending much time in the region are often reminded that “a signed contract is just a pause in the negotiations,” just when they have invested so much into a project that they can no longer afford to walk away from it. Barry Unsworth’s Land of Marvels, set in 1914 Mesopotamia, is a reminder, however, that this way of conducting business is not necessarily as one-sided as some would like to think.

Mesopotamia in 1914 is a volatile region. The world is on the brink of war and many European nations are trying to place themselves in advantageous positions that will allow them to pick up the pieces when the already weak Ottoman Empire finally loses its grip on the area. The region that will one day be renamed Iraq is rich in oil and chrome ore, two resources vital to a war effort, and various European factions want to control those resources.

Oil and chrome ore, however, are not Mesopotamia’s only attractions. The region, for thousands of years home to some of the most powerful civilizations the world has seen, is also a favorite hunting ground for archeologists from around the world. One of these, John Somerville, is well into his third digging season at Tell Erdek and is desperate to find something to justify his efforts before it is too late. Not only is Somerville, who self-finances the project, running out of money, a German-built railroad is fast approaching his work site and threatens to run its line right through it.

Joining Somerville at the dig site are his wife, an assistant archeologist, a young Englishwoman, and various government representatives, military men and schemers from all over the world. Somerville’s dinner table becomes a place for all to meet and discuss what they see for the future as well as Somerville’s own progress in discovering the secrets of the past. Even at Somerville’s table, however, all is not as it seems, and the conversation and evolving relationships among those sharing the table are as filled with deceit, danger, and double-dealing as the bigger world around them.

Somerville, so focused on his own problems and impending doom, manages to remain oblivious to all of the intrigue going on around him and his efforts finally pay off in the kind of major discovery that he hopes will save his project and make his name. All of this leads to the book’s symbolic ending, a satisfying and somewhat startling one despite the way that most readers will have seen it coming several pages earlier.

Land of Marvels is not without its flaws. One or two of its main characters are more stereotypical than they should have been, even to reminding the reader of movie types from the 1940s era. In fact, some of the comings and goings around the little base camp, as two characters barely avoid each other at a crucial moment, are reminiscent of films of the same period but this kind of thing can be forgiven in a book that is otherwise so well done.

Land of Marvels is a trip back to the future.

Rated at: 4.0

"The Lioness and the African," Phoenician, 899-700 B.C.

This is a British Museum piece that must have served as the model for one of the discoveries described in Land of Marvels.

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