jueves, 20 de septiembre de 2012

The Quality Of Mercy by Barry Unsworth

At first sight, The Quality Of Mercy by Barry Unsworth might appear to be a sequel. Sacred Hunger, the novel that won the author the Booker Prize, is a vast and highly moving tale about the slave trade. The Quality Of Mercy continues some of the loose ends that Sacred Hunger left, but it goes far beyond being a mere adjunct to its larger predecessor. The Quality Of Mercy makes its own points, just as significant as those of Sacred Hunger, but its form is more succinct and, in some ways, its message is more telling.

As ever with Barry Unsworth, the novel goes far beyond mere story, describes much more than the countable events that befall its characters. In Sacred Hunger, the focus was a mercantilist venture in the inhumane human trade of the eighteenth century. It was the history, its veracity, its credibility, its rawness and ultimately unacceptable reality that shone through and rendered the book a completely satisfying experience both as a narrative and as an intellectual experience.

In The Quality Of Mercy, Barry Unsworth continues the tale of the Liverpool Merchant, the ship that made Sacred Hunger’s voyage in the triangular trade. But it is more than a decade since the endeavour came to its unfortunate end and Erasmus Kemp, son of the venture capitalist whose dreams of profit proved no more substantial than a pending insurance claim, is pursuing an action against a gang of mutineers from the ship who still languish in a London jail. He is also pursuing the insurance claim, the outcome of which depends in part on how the crewmen’s mutiny is seen.

The Ashtons are brother and sister and, for their own reasons, support the abolition of slavery. One of the hand-clapping surprises of reading Barry Unsworth is his ability to interpret the history associated with his plots. There is no mere plod through events as they unfold. Neither is there cheap sensationalism derived from overstatement. What Barry Unsworth achieves is a rounded picture of issues that incorporates the complications, contexts and nuances of a debate that are often lost in summary accounts. And he always manages to achieve this with elegance, wit and considerable beauty. Abolitionists, you see, were not all liberals campaigning for human rights and concepts of freedom. Politics have always been more complex than that. Read the book to understand the nuances.

Well, the Ashtons oppose Kemp, at least the brother does. The sister, Jane, eventually makes liaisons of her own with Erasmus Kemp. His anticipation of willing enslavement by her prompts the delamation of some rather uncharacteristic promises of the kind that men are prone to make when presented with opportunity.

There is the case of Evans, who in theory has been manumitted and thus rendered a free man, but whose former owners still regard as their property to sell. There is Sullivan, an Irish fiddler from the Liverpool Merchant, who breaks out of prison to fulfil a promise to a deceased crew member that he would contact his family to tell of his fate. That family lives in Durham and work in the mines, work in a domestic slavery from the age of seven, the dark underground galleys of the mine reminding us directly of the below deck cargo hold of the ocean-going slaver. Then there is the mine’s owner, a landowner and a Lord, no less, who lives in a state of permanent debt, more interested in trinkets than lives. And then there is the dawn of capitalism in the form of the nouveau-riche Kemp’s intended purchase and reform of the Lord’s mines, a proposal characterised by notions of technological innovation, increased efficiency and projected profit. A little piece of previously unwanted land might hold all kinds of keys.

The Quality Of Mercy is thus much more than an historical novel. It is also much more than a tale of slavery and emerging capitalism. It is more than mutiny aboard ship and revenge via the Law. It is also much more than an essay o social class relations at the start of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. It is no less than a Barry Unsworth novel and therefore simultaneously emotional and intellectual, a rounded and completely satisfying experience for the reader. But it is a complex book about complex issues. Expect to be challenged.

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