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Barry Unsworth, the English Booker Prize winning novelist has written many memorable books, perhaps best known being Sacred Hunger (1992), the incredible imagining of life of slavers and slaves on a ship in the late 18th century.  Many of his novels use the eastern Mediterranean, in distant centuries or near, for setting and historical context. Following several years teaching in Greece and Turkey he wrote Pascali’s Island (1980) which became very popular in the U.S. and spawned a movie by the same name, and the less successful but equally interesting The Rage of the Vulture (1982).  The Song of Kings (2002) takes place before the battle of Troy, The Ruby in her Naval  (2006) is in 12th century Sicily.   The Land of Marvels is in Mesopotamia just before WW I. The action in Pascali’s Island and The Rage of the Vulture takes place in 1908, one on the island the other in the heart of the dying empire itself, Istanbul.

The region long known as Macedonia at the north western end of the Aegean Sea was in rebellion against the dying Ottoman Empire in 1908.  Armed partisans for Greece and Bulgaria were fighting each other and Sultan Abdul Hamid II’s Third Army; England, Austria, Germany and Russia were in the mix, trying, they said, to bring peace, but appearing as a predator to the Sultan.  Young Ottoman officers in the army fearing the loss of territory and chaos as the Sultan loses control organize themselves  into a mutinous force which will become known as The Young Turks.  Mustafa Kemal is one of them and the one who will lead the fight for Turkish independence from the Allied occupiers following WW I.

The Armenians, who had been part of Anatolia from before the Roman invasions which created Byzantium, and who had fought and died in subsequent raids of Turkic invaders since the 900s, are also restive.  The terrible massacres of 1915 have not arrived, but burned into their memories are those of the 1890s, named The Hamidian massacres for their author,  the despotic rule of the current Sultan.  It is among these peoples and conditions that The Rage of the Vulture takes place, very promising to a reader interested in the tumbling blocks that led to WW I.

Conceived as both a  mystery and a historical novel The Rage of the Vulture is divided into two parts, which are indeed almost separate novels.

Robert Markham is a British Army Captain who is posted to Istanbul with his wife and 10 year old son, as well as the son’s governess.  The opening pages seem to be setting up a common enough story of British colonialists in a vaguely threatening land, with native servants devoted to them, and a beautiful young woman to distract both father and son.  Cocktail parties take place and introduce certain social tensions — other officers who admire his wife, naive visitors who want to explore Istanbul as they might London.  Markham is tense, and increasingly distant from his wife and son, who is pursuing his own childish adventures which foreshadow in a way his father’s mystery.

It turns out that Markham has been here before. An accidental sighting on a military watch-list of a familiar Armenian name sets him off on a physical search and mental revelations.   12 years earlier had been engaged to an Armenian woman.  During their wedding celebration, a band of  killers, likely carrying out the Sultan’s wishes,  broke in, clubbed the celebrants –except Markham, who cried out ‘I am English! I am English!’ — to death, and raped and killed his bride before his eyes, an event he has been unable to speak about to anyone, or come to terms with himself.

Markham presses himself on Miss Taverner, the governess, in an act of ‘acquaintance rape’ which seems somehow to link back to his anguish over his fiance and his inability to protect her, his felt sense of cowardice.  Already part of the shadowy world of espionage as the British try to push back against German influence in the empire, and to influence the fighting in Macedonia, Markham is shadowed by men from one or another of the various parties.  As his past begins to waken in him he enters even deeper.

Dressed as an Armenian, with his skin darkened, he finds Hartunian, the man whose name he recognized.  He is the uncle of his murdered fiance, now a wealthy cotton merchant.  Markham warns him that his name is on a British list.  Hartunian waves it off and is friendly to him, but his younger and more radical secretary, is not.  If Markham is a friend of the Armenians, let him help us, he says.  And thus part two of the novel takes up.

Markham’s family leaves as a result of his infidelities,  Miss Taverner as well.  He is alone in the house, and begins to act, as it seems he has no other choice.  At the behest of the Armenians he follows an Islamist Nationalist newspaper publisher through dark alleys and into a brothel.  He is implicated in the man’s murder.

He goes into hiding with Gypsies in the big cemetery as an Islamic revolt against the Committee of Union and Progress — the Young Turks— breaks out.  He is finally found, still in hiding, by Nejib Bey, one of the Young Turks he had had dealings with as the Army attache.  Nejib assures him that the Third Army is within hours of Istanbul and the Islamist rioting will soon be over. Markham promises to go back  to the city but goes instead to Sultan demanding to see him, apparently in a feeble assassination attempt.

He is captured, despite the end of the regime being hours away and is taken away to be tortured, to which he submits as if to make up, prove to himself what he felt he had failed 12 years before.  After his captors flee, he manages to free himself, and staggers back towards the city, and we assume his house. The novel takes a rather strange turn in the final pages.  After we assume he is dead, shot as a djinn by a countrified soldier — a very satisfactory end to such a tale — he turns up, as if in a post-script, alive and aging and back with his wife in England, his young son, now a soldier with the British in the battle of Gallipoli.

The Rage of the Vulture (taken from a stanza by Byron) is to my mind an odd sort of novel   It seems composed, without the rush of inspiration that brought The Sacred Hunger.  What can I do with him here?  And what there? Where can I talk about Gypsies?  Markham’s disguising himself as an Armenian — while an active duty Army officer– seems extremely unlikely, something only a writer would invent.  The suicide by pistol shot of Col Nesbitt,  a senior military colleague, after  drunken and too compressed revelations about Nesbitt’s loathing for Armenians and possible knowledge of Markham’s connection to them is too quickly done for the weight their opposing views might have in bringing the reader deeper into the multiple conflicts of the time.  Unsworth has spent time for a conversation between Brits about submarine warfare, why not cut it, and tell us more about Brits on both sides of the Young Turk rising?

Part One,  of family and professional life, of his son’s adventures and his own infidelities are very well drawn.  When he slips out to the dark garden to meet Miss Taverner for the first time we are gripped in several kinds of nervousness: will she be terrified, scandalized, flushed with desire? Will his wife discover his absence, or his son, who is ever alert to noises in the house and his own boyish yearning for the 23 year old woman?

Part Two, the entry into the back alleys of his own anguish and attempt to tie it into Turkish-Armenian history just doesn’t work very well for me.  While Unsworth does a  good job of including the actual historical players of the period, mentioning Shevket Pasha — leader of Macedonian 3rd Army (Salonika), Enver Bey (under whom in 1915 1 million or more Armenians died), the Adana Massacre, Rassim Pasha — head of secret police, and even the rioting by Islamic citizens in support of a Sultan not known for loving them,   critical historical material gets rushed by,especially in a conversation between Markham and Nejib Bey in the Cemetery.

Markham has just figured out who killed the publisher, Hassan Fehmi,  who he was trailing on behalf of the Armenians and how he himself was to be used by the new Turks or the ancient Armenians, whoever got there first.  Nejib Bey instructs him that the new Turkish plan does not include “an independent Armenia on Turkish soil … nor any dream of a union between Turkish and Russian Armenia.”  There is a world of history in that sentence, of war, of history, of competing nationalisms and states of dreams of revenge and separation, self determination and territorial integrity.  We have no information about any of this from the novel.  Had it gotten the pages deserved, in conversations Markham might have had with the several Armenians he met, or with Nejib himself, coming to or from a conference table, early in the novel, or in Markham’s own ruminations, the competing interests that led to the assassination and his role in it would have been much more strongly present. The event would have echoed, in the intense personal world of the players, the wider stage upon which they all played.