Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Europe revisited, reinterpreted - The Ruby in her Navel by Barry Unsworth

A Ruby in Her Navel is yet another superb historical novel by Barry Unsworth. By his phenomenal standards, this book might at first appear somewhat one-paced, even one-dimensional, with its action set firmly in the place and time of its main character, Thurston Beauchamp, a young man in the service of King Roger of Sicily in the twelfth century. But if A Ruby in Her Navel might lack the immediacy and complexity of Stone Virgin, it approaches the beautifully portrayed picture of medieval life presented in Morality Play. Indeed, a group of travelling players also features in this novel, as in Morality Play, but this time it’s a troupe of belly dancers from Anatolia, on tour in southern Italy. The ruby and navel of the title both belong to Nasrin, the youngest, most beautiful and most provocative member of the group. But having written that they were touring Italy, a country name that in our eyes is merely mundane and perhaps innocuous, I am reminded of one of the most enduring features of Barry Unsworth’s book, which is its ability to re-draw one’s understanding of who we were.

It was Alison Weir who first did this for me, if you see what I mean. I read her biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the marriageable lady who became King Henry the Second of England’s queen. Again, there’s the name of a country… You see, at school we British school children learned a variety of history that filtered everything through a sieve of contemporary national requirements. I can remember being taught that during the medieval era, the English ruled most of France and largely held onto it until the Wars of the Roses (I was brought up in Yorkshire, another irrelevant aside). Possessions remained until Queen Mary finally gave up Calais with a cardiac etch. Alison Weir undid a school lifetime of history when she described the Angevin Empire, part of the pan-European expansion of the Franks. Based in Anjou, this empire comprised what we now call southern, western and northern France, plus all of England and Wales, and other bits at times (though never Scotland, hence that nation’s long-lasting alliance with the rival empire based on the Ile de France). When interpreted this way, it wasn’t English kings that ruled France, or vice-versa. It was an empire with its own lingua franca, langue d’oc. The countries, and with them the geographical, ethnic and cultural assumptions upon which we falsely base our interpretation of the past, simply did not exist. Thus the paradigms upon which we base our understanding of English-ness or French-ness become both irrelevant and inapplicable. And thus the troupe of belly dancers in A Ruby in Her Navel weren’t, therefore, in Italy. They were in the Kingdom of Sicily, a small but powerful and ambitious little Norman empire created out of the same Frankish expansion that spurned the enduring conquest of the Anglo-Saxons in 1066.

In A Ruby in her Navel Barry Unsworth presents medieval Europe in a way that brings the historical issues into focus and gives them life. Lands were conquered and their Muslim leaders deposed. But the new rulers had to politic their way to continued incumbency, recognising the interests of land-hungry knights, only temporarily defeated Muslim predecessors with friends nearby, Jewish merchants who did pragmatic business with anyone and everyone. And even within these groups there were divisions. Amongst the Christians there were two competing blocks, the Germanic Holy Roman Empire and the Byzantine remnants of Imperial Rome. And then there was the Pope with his own empire, interests and ability to raise an army. And then there were those who aspired to power from within and sought to depose a rival in their own house. The Crusades that primary school history presents has having something to do with religion thus become mere wars of conquest for booty.

In A Ruby in Her Navel Barry Unsworth thus gives immediate, tangible life to the feudalism of the time. We really do understand the politics, the interests, the motivations of the era. But we are led to it by our experience of the characters’ lives, not via instruction or polemic. And the message is more powerful for Thurston Beauchamp, because he aspires to the knighthood his father relinquished in favour of monasticism. Thurston is currently King Roger’s entertainments manager and has to travel to Italy (I am doing it again!) to buy herons, caged prey for the King’s peregrines. He does his deal, but meets the troupe of dancers and the resulting stirrings of the spirit provoke him to ship them back home to do the same for his master. He falls in love with Nasrin, one of the group. Meanwhile Alicia, Thurston’s childhood sweetheart, suddenly reappears in his life. They were at school together until she was whisked away at a marriageable fourteen to be conjoined to a knight with a big sword and real estate in the Middle East, the Norman Outremer. Alicia’s husband, it seems, has now snuffed it, and again Thurston’s spirits rise when he realises that she is again available, again an unaccompanied, unclaimed, newly-vacated vessel.

The belly dancers go down well at home, of course, and so Thurston’s star is in the ascendant. He gets a new mission, commissioned by he knows not who and which causes accounting difficulties for the Muslim “head of civil service” to whom he reports.

By now you have probably guessed that there is a plot. And it’s a vast one, involving insiders, outsiders, a pope or two, Muslims, Germans, Jews, Byzantines and all the other interests competing their share of or their consolidation of feudal power. This really is top-down government, but the trick, once power is achieved, clearly is just to hold on. And sometimes you consolidate your home base by having a fiddle or two on foreign soil, a political strategy not unknown in our own times.

Our Thurston analyses the plot, works it all out and then acts to influence the outcome. Along the way he grapples with his rising dilemma in relation to Nasrin and Alicia, and thus his life is eventually transformed. As in all ages, he follows his heart (by which, of course, I mean his brain). A Ruby in Her Navel thus reveals that, as ever with Barry Unsworth, it is a multi-layered, complex, surprising and yet deeply human tale.

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