The fascination for me is to invent. I don’t like to touch on real lives in the past. I like to write stories set in the past, which is a different thing. And so it’s always important to me to be in the margins of history and to invent something that is running parallel to the official history.
Click play to listen. Recorded on January 25, 2009.
British novelist Barry Unsworth not only won the Booker Prize for Sacred Hunger in 1992, but two of his other historical novels been short-listed over the years. In Land of Marvels, he revisits a period previously explored in Pascali's Island: the tumultuous end of the Ottoman Empire. Set in 1914 Mesopotamia during the build-up to World War I, the story centers on a fantastic discovery by a British archaeologist. But the ancient historical treasure he unearths is threatened by present day progress, namely, the search for oil and the encroaching Baghdad Railway. Expertly combining historical facts with elements of compelling fiction, Land of Marvels is part thriller, part melodrama, and utterly mesmerizing. Victoria Lautman talks to Unsworth about his long career, his life in the Italian countryside, and why politics are at the core of his work.
Above: Detail of human-headed winged bull from bas-relief in King Sargon II’s palace at Dur Sharrukin, Assyria (now Khorsabad, Iraq), c. 713–716 BCE, from Paul-Émile Botta's 1843–1844 excavations. Photograph by Marie-Lan Nguyen, 2005 (Wikimedia Commons).