by Barry Unsworth ‧ RELEASE DATE: Oct. 24, 1980
After the minor farcical charms of The Big Day (1977), Unsworth returns to a rich fabric of a novel more in line with his best work (e.g., Mooncranker's Gift, 1974). This is the 1908 journal of Maltese-English Basil Pascali; it is, in fact, his last report to the Sultan in Constantinople after 20 years as a virtually forgotten (though regularly paid) Ottoman informer on a Greek isle under the aegis of the crumbling Turkish Empire. Erudite, obsequious, self-deprecating (""an obese Levantine, scrounger and clown, one trouser leg shorter than the other""), Pascali writes this final letter in alternating tones of pensiveness and panic. He fears that the local Greeks are about to expose and attack him, but he's equally riveted, and calmed, by his near-spiritual obsession with a newcomer to the island--the fair-mustached Englishman, Mister Bowles, who is so moral and idealistic, so much the opposite of both German speculator Gesing and slimy Pascali himself. (""I like everything to be clear and aboveboard,"" says Bowles. ""I, on the other hand, prefer a certain degree of fruitful murk,"" answers Pascali.) Moral indeed, Bowles turns out to be an amateur archaeologist who has come to putter around the spot where the Virgin Mary ended her days; and Pascali eagerly helps him in land-leasing negotiations with the authorities. But soon, after jealously (though lovingly) seeing Bowles in the embrace of painter Lydia (Pascali's own unrequited love-object), Pascali realizes that Bowles is really a superb con man, out to cheat the greedy local bigwigs of a few hundred lira. So: will Pascali merely blackmail this fellow liar and dark soulmate? Or will he ruthlessly betray Bowles (an ""accomplished fantasist"" more than a swindler) when the Englishman truly does discover priceless Greek bronze-work on the land and secretly plots to haul it away? Pascali's choice is betrayal, of course, and both Bowles and Lydia will die in the ensuing melee, leaving Pascali to await assassination (the Sultan has been dethroned) while the Germans now blast the archaeological site in quest of bauxite . . . . A narrow, slightly claustrophobic framework--but one that allows Unsworth lots of room to exercise his gifts for visual description and ironic musing, along with the large echoes of empire, history, art, greed, and treachery. The result? Something of a cross between Eric Ambler and E. M. Forster (the death of Bowles--crushed by the beautiful bronze--may remind you of the Howard's End bookcase scene), slow yet shapely as the curlicueing narration invests shady characters and a tiny plot with charm, subtle tension, and moody resonance. Fine work in a minor mode.
Pub Date: Oct. 24, 1980
Page Count: -
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1980
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