Barry Unsworth in conversation with Eleanor Wachtel

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First aired on Writers & Company (01/23/11)

Barry Unsworth first came to the attention of a lot of Canadians in 1992. That's when his novel about the 18th-century slave trade, Sacred Hunger, shared the Booker Prize with Canada's first winner of that award, Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient.

Sacred Hunger not only focused on the devastating aspects of the trading triangle between Africa, Britain and America in 1750, it also raised philosophic and moral issues that had a modern-day resonance, pitting idealism against greed.

Unsworth is an expert at embedding aesthetic and ethical questions in a compelling story. Concepts like justice and liberty are debated against the backdrop of historical adventure.

In his latest novel, Land of Marvels, Unsworth goes back to the dying days of the Ottoman Empire in Mesopotamia (what is now Iraq). A British archaeologist is excavating what he hopes is a treasure of the Assyrian Empire from the 7th century BC. The time is 1914, and the imminence of war is felt through rival imperial claims. Germany is financing the Baghdad railway, Britain is competing for oil reserves, and the struggle for power plays out across romantic interests and personal ambition. Throughout the book, the desire to do good is inextricably caught up with material aims, for better or worse.

This interest in power and empire is not new for Unsworth. According to the author, the nature of power, or the various forms of the relationship between bully and victim, can be seen running through all of his novels in some way or another. Land of Marvels, however, takes the relentlessness of personal ambition to a new level. That was something, Unsworth says, he saw first-hand in the country he now lives in — Italy.

"In Italy today something of the same kind of limitless greed is very evident in public life," the author told host Eleanor Wachtel in a recent interview on Writers & Company. "It may be some sort of sense that I've had these past few years of a decay in public life and institutions that influenced me to write this book."

According to Unsworth, it is the writer's job to raise questions. And if there is a question that is brought up here, it would be whether this erosion of public life can be justified, or, as Unsworth explains, how far ambition of any sort can be justified if its achievement is obtained through exploitation.

"There are always limits that have to be accepted," Unsworth later said. "This curse of power that knows no borders, no inhibitions, no natural limit at all, is a terrible thing."

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