Saturday, 9 June 2012

Barry Unsworth

The British writer Barry Unsworth, who died on 8 June 2012, was one of those authors who, while undoubtedly one of my favourites, I have not read as many novels of his, or as often, as I perhaps should have.

The Sacred Hunger, the joint winner of the 1992 Booker Prize, was the first Unsworth novel read. Several years after I first read it, my memory of this novel (based on the Atlantic slave trade in the 18th century, the story of the mutinous crew on the slave-ship Liverpool Merchnt) is the clever yet subtle way in which Unsworth drew parallels between the past and the present. He refrained from making outright moral judgments and left it to the reader to figure these themes out for themselves.

At more than 600 pages The Sacred Hunger was a humongous novel and while I enjoyed reading it, I also found it a bit heavy going.

It was a while before I read another Unsworth novel. It was titled After Hannibal. This novel, based in Italy, Unsworth’s adoptive country for the last twenty years of his life, was a light-hearted yarn, which, nevertheless, had at its core a rather bleak message: most of the human endeavours turn out to be futile most of the time. In the novel Unsworth dealt with the ambiguities and capriciousness of justice. I liked After Hannibal, which, unlike The Sacred Hunger (which I remember being relentlessly grim), was very satirical in its tone; sections of the novel were very comic.

It was Pascali’s Island, one of Unsworth’s early novels, which I read next and which turned me into an Unsworth fan. Pascali’s Island is easily one of the best novels I have read. It was, according to Unsworth’s obituaries I read on the Net, Unsworth’s first foray into historical fiction. Pascali’s Island (also made into a film starring Ben Kingsley and Helen Mirren) told the story of Basil Pascali, who lives on Aegean island, a remote post of the Ottoman Empire. It is the dying days of the Empire and Pascali, a spy of the sultan, has been sending reports to Istanbul for years, which, he knows, no one reads. Since nothing of any significance has happened on the sleepy island, Pascali, in order to ensure that he still has a job, has taken to embellish his reports, writing innovative stories about non-existent foreigners visiting the island. However, the arrival on the island of an Englsih archaeologist and a mysterious German trigger events beyond Pascali’s wildest imagination. I absolutely loved Pascali’s Island, suffused with black humour and reminiscent of vintage Graham Greene, for example, Our Man in Havana  (there was a Greene-like twist at the end, if my memory serves me right). Pascali’s Island, the first novel of Unsworth to be nominated for the Booker Prize, was a gripping read; it remains one of my all-time favourite novels.  This is a novel to be savoured again and again for its sardonic wit.

The next Unsworth novel I read was a smashing read, too. It was Losing Nelson. Losing Nelson told the story of a solitary man called Charles Cleasby, who is obsessed with Horatio Nelson. Cleasby’s life is an unending celebration of various events in the life of the hero. As the novel progresses, slowly, but unmistakably a feeling of unease begins to creep up on the reader. Slowly the reader realises that Cleasby’s interest in Nelson goes way beyond your garden variety obsession; that he might be losing the control over his mind. Superbly paced, perfectly controlled, and written in Unsworth’s simple yet elegant prose, Losing Nelson (with its surprising denouement) is simply breathtaking. Filled with historical details of Nelson’s life, the novel can be described as historical fiction; but it is more than that. It is a stunning psychodrama. One of the few great literary suspense novels I have read.

Losing Nelson was the last Unsworth novel to be set in England, the country of his birth. He wrote excellent novels after this (for example, Land of Marvels, no one of which was set in England. In an interview given a few years ago Unsworth said that he felt increasingly out of touch with day to day life in Britain. ‘It [England] seems to me in many ways a rather ugly little place, although this is the view of an outsider.’

Losing Nelson was the fourth novel of Unsworth I read and the fourth that I liked. I should have read more novels of this talented novelist. I am, therefore, at a loss to figure out why I did not read another Unsworth novel for several years.

Two years ago, while on a holiday, I read Land of Marvels, Unsworth’s 2009 novel. This was a historical novel, the backdrop of which was Mesopotamia, as the world stood on the brink of the First World War. Land of Marvels, with its several, linked subplots, was a richly imagined and cunningly plotted novel; and, as in his Booker winner, The Sacred Hunger, Unsworth drew subtle parallels between the period of the novel and what is happening in the region now. It was a extensively researched novel that managed the rare feat of being erudite and a page-turner—a thoroughly satisfying read. Land of Marvels was not only one of the best novels I read that year, it will easily figure in the top ten novels I have read in recent years.

After reading Land of Marvels I promised myself that I would read more novels of Unsworth more frequently, yet I have not read any in the last two years. A couple of his novels (Morality Play and Mooncranker’s Gift) have been on my shelf for years, and it’s time I picked up one of them.

Barry Unsworth was a sumptuously gifted writer who wrote many novels in his long writing career (17 according to WikiPedia). The five novels which I have read were accomplished, clever (without ever being irritating), richly imagined and superbly plotted. And his pellucid prose made them an added pleasure to read. Most obituaries of Unsworth I read described him as a writer of historical fiction. I do not think that such descriptions adequately convey the wide range of themes Unsworth pursued in his novels. While he undoubtedly had a passion for history, his novels were much more than that. Sometimes they were psychological thrillers, sometimes black comedies. Many of his novels conveyed serious moral messages without ever being preachy. And they were always readable.

A great writer has died.