Barry Unsworth | Critical Review by Thomas R. Edwards

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Barry Unsworth.
This section contains 1,098 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Thomas R. Edwards

SOURCE: "Atonement in Turkey," in New York Times Book Review, March 13, 1983, p. 7.

In the following review, Edwards finds The Rage of the Vulture an admirable attempt to reveal personal conflict amid catastrophic world events.

The recent conquest of America's television screens by The Winds of War is the latest evidence of our desire to know the origins of the cataclysms the 20th century has made so commonplace. Or since such entertainments conceal as much as they reveal, maybe it is our desire not to know these origins too accurately, on the not unreasonable assumption that the whole truth might be more than we could handle.

The Rage of the Vulture, the sixth novel by the British writer Barry Unsworth, could also be made into a pretty good television spectacle but only by excising most of what makes it impressive as a novel; it comes not to conceal but, like any serious work of imagination, to tell us more than we are morally prepared to know. Mr. Unsworth's story is set in Turkey in 1908, when "the sick man of Europe" at last lay dying while its racially and religiously fragmented populace was in turmoil and the European powers sought to extend their spheres of influence. These struggles would become more public in August 1914.

As the novel begins, the aged Sultan Abdul Hamid II, rightly fearful that his cruel reign has brought retribution close to his door, studies Constantinople through a telescope from his hilltop palace while, within his field of vision and deeply aware of being so, Capt. Robert Markham of the British Military Mission gives a garden party for members of the European community. Farther away rebellion is stirring in Macedonia, led by the Young Turk dissidents in the army, avowedly bent on European-style modernization and liberalization. Ethnic and religious animosities in the diverse populace, relatively quiet since the massacres of Armenians in the 1890's, are on the rise. And the other major powers are maneuvering to block the ominous growth of German influence in the region.

Observing a primary convention of historical fiction, Mr. Unsworth places a minor personal experience at the center of the public drama. In the eyes of his British colleagues Robert Markham is rather a difficult sort. Clever, sensitive, aloof, "erratic," he lives with his wife and 10-year old son, Henry, in a non-European quarter of the capital. He seems puzzlingly "proprietorial" about Turkey, with a most un-British interest in its political and cultural subtleties, and it alerts him to an impending revolutionary change to which his hidebound colleagues are quite oblivious.

The reader learns that Markham has a secret concealed even from his wife. He was in Turkey 12 years earlier, when he was compelled to witness the rape and murder of Miriam, his Armenian financee, during the Armenian massacre of 1896. He saved himself by telling her killers that he was English, asserting a detachment from the horrible event that has haunted him ever since; his return to Turkey seems in some way meant as atonement. As Markham enters the unknown depths of official and underground politics that involve both Turks and Armenians, his son, in a delicate echo of his father's initiation, begins a childish but incipiently sexual relationship with the little Turkish girl next door.

Markham's search for self-respect provides both a gripping story of adventure and intrigue and a deeper portrait of an interesting mind puzzled and thwarted by its own experience. As events compel the Sultan to accept the constraints of constitutional monarchy, Markham's suspicions about Colonel Nesbitt, a senior colleague who seems closer to Turkish Intelligence than he should be, lead him into a secret world of subversion where a faction of Armenian nationalists and Young Turks guardedly conspires against the old regime. At home, needing someone to hear his confession about Miriam, Markham makes a rather predatory conquest of Miss Taverner, his son's young English governess, which Henry (something of a spy himself) witnesses and later deliriously reveals when stricken with typhoid fever.

This domestic disaster—his wife and son and Miss Taverner quickly return to England—brings Markham the physical and moral solitude his quest for personal and political understanding requires. And a pattern begins to emerge from his experience: He seeks in effect to be a man, not merely an Englishman (the identity that protected him from Miriam's fate), not a husband or father or lover or soldier, not subject to terms of existence narrower than those of full humanity. But this desire is enclosed by history, with (as T. S. Eliot wrote) its "many cunning passages, contrived corridors / And issues." And Markham's search for his own humanity through the physical and moral labyrinth of prewar Constantinople is ironically shadowed by the novel's depiction of the maze of secret corridors and exits the doomed Sultan keeps rebuilding in his palace to foil assassins.

Markham's effort to participate meaningfully in history, to know and assist those who would bring down a brutal regime, causes him to shed his European selfhood even as he physically assumes native identities. He takes refuge with gypsies, dresses as a Turk and finally enters the palace in disguise as the Sultan is at last being deposed, for an oblique but personally decisive encounter with the tyrant who has obsessed his mind for so long. But the ironies of history cunningly persist and triumph. Markham's assertion of his humanity by revealing his moral guilt to others is compromised by his unrecognized need to dominate, even destroy, those to whom he reveals it. His sympathetic approach to the Armenian cause, to the achievement of a national homeland, makes him a useful pawn of extremists in that cause who would provoke new massacres to dramatize their plight. Provoked or unprovoked, massacres did indeed take place in 1915, after the "liberal" new regime replaced the Sultanate.

The Rage of the Vulture is in many ways a curious novel for these days. Eloquently, even poetically, written, it still does not pursue ambitiously "literary" effects, meanings noticeably larger than its material suggests. Though its chief concern is coherent narrative, it isn't really an espionage-intrigue tale or a historical novel in the popular mode. (Devotees of those genres ought nevertheless to enjoy it.) Nor, despite its potential resonance with religious and racial horrors still abroad in the Middle East (and elsewhere), is it a parable about contemporary history. It is a beautifully honest story of how a life is both given point and thwarted by its concern for self-definition through political commitment, and I admire Barry Unsworth very much for having told it so scrupulously and vividly.

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This section contains 1,098 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Thomas R. Edwards
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