Barry Unsworth | Critical Review by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Barry Unsworth.
This section contains 860 words
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Critical Review by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

SOURCE: "Books of the Times," in New York Times Book Review, February 7, 1983, p. 15.

In the following review, Lehmann-Haupt offers praise for Unsworth's evocation of the Middle East in the early twentieth century in The Rage of the Vulture.

In Barry Unsworth's latest novel, The Rage of the Vulture, Capt. Robert Markham—a British infantry officer posted to Constantinople during the final years of the Ottoman Empire—is a complicated and not very sympathetic protagonist. He regards his 10-year-old son, Henry, mainly as a rival for his wife's affection.

He resents his wife for her failure to understand a secret thing about him, which secret, paradoxically enough, he refuses to reveal to her just because of that resentment. Convinced that Henry's governess can understand him, he all but rapes her and then rejects her for understanding him too easily.

He has a facility for surpassing in unpleasantness even the worst of the novel's other characters. In one of Mr. Unsworth's more bitter scenes, an English visitor named Miss Munro, who finds Constantinople "romantic," asks Markham to accompany her on an interview she has arranged with one of the Sultan's eunuchs. She has had great success with a series for an English magazine on Turkey during the 1908 revolution and wants to see "what the experience has meant to people. The guardsman, the concubine, the pageboy." "'Ordinary people,' Markham said, but Miss Munro was too absorbed in her subject to notice the irony."

When the liberal Miss Munro inadvertently prompts the eunuch to describe his castration, Markham savagely translates the horrifying description while Miss Munro tries to stop her ears. We actually end up feeling sorry for the petty-minded creature. Why then, you might ask, does one continue to put up with Markham as he makes his way through Barry Unsworth's dazzling and complex portrait of Constantinople in the year 1908? Why does one continue reading The Rage of the Vulture, whose title is taken from Canto I of Lord Byron's "The Bride of Abydos": "Know ye the land where the cypress and myrtle / Are emblems of deeds that are done in their clime? / Where the rage of the vulture, the love of the turtle, / Now melt into sorrow, now madden to crime." Why does one go on? For one thing, because Robert Markham's secret is a plausible reason for his complicated behavior. He had been in Constantinople 12 years earlier, about to marry an Armenian girl, when the Turkish massacre of the Armenians began to spread throughout the city. At their engagement party, Markham's fiancee was raped and murdered while he stood by, protesting to her tormentors: "I am an Englishman. I am an Englishman." The shame of the incident has unmanned him, which, of course, is why he translates the eunuch's experience for Miss Munro with such savage relish. Now, in the novel's present, he is determined somehow to make amends for his shame.

Of course he cannot. As a young Armenian nationalist tells him, "The suffering of individuals is not important." He continues, "You lost your fiancee. You think: They did this to me, to me! You nurse what they did to you. You think of yourself as an outraged individual. You are alone with yourself. There are two million Armenians in Turkey, Captain Markham. The very great majority of them have no leisure to cultivate their personal sense of outrage in that way."

What is more, the reader knows from actual history that whatever Markham may accomplish by way of revenge or self-punishment, the Armenians in Turkey will eventually suffer far more widespread massacres.

Still, Markham will pursue his own degradation all the way to the Sultan's personal torture chamber. And if he accomplishes little more than to have his English pride and individuality beaten out of him, he serves along the way as the reader's witness to the splendors of exotic Constantinople. Many of Mr. Unsworth's spectacles, such as the celebration of a holy day in the interior of the Hagia Sophia, are heightened in their effect by being made an integral part of the plot. But even when he is merely sightseeing, his scenery is often spectacular.

Markham's eventual defeat transports him into a state of eccentricity somehow peculiar to the English. In the novel's epilogue, set toward the end of World War I, we find him back in England, living once again with his wife, though at a somewhat chilling remove. He has taken up bee-keeping, as well as writing a massive book whose thesis it is that in keeping with the tendency of certain races to "take on an excitatory role in history," it has been the fate of the Armenians to stimulate "the atrocity glands, that was their collective historical role."

As the conclusion to a heroic quest, this is not very satisfying. But it is an altogether fitting end to this curiously crabbed and obsessive adventure, in which Barry Unsworth once again, just as he did earlier in such accomplished novels as Mooncranker's Gift and The Idol Hunter, has exercised his strange fascination with Turkey and the Middle East during the early years of this century, and has thereby succeeded in fascinating his readers.

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This section contains 860 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
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