Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a medieval swimming pool?

Lorna Sage

  • After Hannibal by Barry Unsworth
    Hamish Hamilton, 242 pp, £16.00, September 1996, ISBN 0 241 13342 4

Property-owning and picaresque were once upon a time in opposition, but the new middle-class diaspora has changed all that. People want to put down roots where they wander, buy themselves a piece of the view and a share of the sky, a place of their own. Marvellous time. Wish I was here. We don’t simply holiday and go home, we dream in brick and stucco and terracotta. Barry Unsworth’s new novel is set in this DIY world inhabited by the suddenly self-made, the restless retired, the seekers of salvation in the soil – someone else’s soil, however, some corner of a foreign field.

We’re in Umbria, in the sticks, not far from Perugia and not far from Lake Trasimene, where – hence the title – Hannibal inflicted a bloody defeat on a Roman army. Though this is a landscape pocked and pleated with a history going back even before Hannibal, it’s curiously lacking in definition in the present. The novel’s structural conceit, announced on the opening page, is the meandering line of a by-road, a neighbourhood road that provides access to people’s houses: ‘When such a road has reached your door it has no necessary further existence; it may straggle along somewhere else or it may not ... The important thing, really, about roads like this is not where they end but the lives they touch on the way.’ Along this particular nameless road all the houses, all old, are inhabited by newcomers and foreigners, for even though some of them are Italian, they’re from elsewhere, from cities in other regions. It’s the road that leads us into After Hannibal, since it provides the only tenuous link among these people. The most officious of the strangers, Harold Chapman (a Docklands property-dealer in his other life) is approached for money with vague menaces by a local peasant family who own a crumbling wall that’s threatening to block the way, and he in turn approaches his various neighbours. So it’s a plot that’s really a series of plots strung out along a line, almost a pun on the notion of ‘plot’. We visit and revisit these strangers’ separate patches of property, the scattered houses in which they work out their different destinies.

Ritter, a much-travelled German translator, veteran of a thousand international conferences, is now a silent recluse, labouring obsessively to clear his overgrown terraces, and digging around, too, in his damaged memory. He owes his first facility with languages to the fact that as a boy during the war he lived in Rome, where his father was in SS Military Intelligence, but it’s only with agonising effort that he recovers bit by bit the source of the guilt that’s haunted him always, beyond words. Even crass Chapman realises that Ritter’s not going to be much help in the matter of the road: the fellow’s obviously a weirdo, hasn’t even got a car! Other neighbours listen with more of a show of attention, but they too have their distractions. The academic historian Professor Monti, who has moved down from Turin to teach, and to work in the archives on his pet topic – the pattern of internecine violence and betrayal that characterised Renaissance Perugia – has himself been betrayed. His wife Laura had a secret lover in Turin, and has walked out and gone back to join him. So Monti seethes and smarts, and finds himself researching with most unscholarly passion the roles played by some of the wives in those long-ago blood-lettings. He listens with more understanding to another neighbour, Arturo, who retired to the country with his lover Fabio, and set up a gay marriage of the most correct, not to say prissy kind – and has been even more coolly and spectacularly cheated. He had put the house, on which they’d lavished so much care, in Fabio’s name to avoid tax – Fabio’s bright idea – and now the traitor has run back to Naples, nostalgic for the filthy streets he was rescued from all those years ago; Fabio is acting on this legal fiction to take possession of the house. As Professor Monti (so lonely these days he doesn’t have a first name) would say: a pattern starts to emerge. These people, moving house, have somehow managed to expose the fissile nature of their inward and intimate lives.

For the Greens, however, it’s different. These idealistic American art teachers fell in love with Italy and Umbria on their honeymoon forty years ago, and have sunk their savings into converting a house for their retirement. The Greens are so entirely married they even look alike: white-haired, spry, with candid blue eyes. They will prove Monti’s pattern only partial, for in their case it’s the dream house that’s going to crumble, not the dream itself, which is the fabric of their relationship. They’re wrestling ineptly with builders and plans, when along comes Stanley Blemish, late of Lambeth Housing (which he left in a bit of a hurry just ahead of an investigation), now a ‘project manager’ preying on innocents abroad. The Greens are just his kind of people. Along with his ‘builder’, Esposito, who has a very small bit-part decked out in gold chains and spends most of his time on his mobile phone calling in workers who undermine walls and dig trenches, Blemish picks their pockets with villainous glee. And here we descend to broad and savage satire. The very names shade into allegory, including that of Esposito, which derives from the old custom of ‘exposing’ illegitimate babies on the steps of the church or at the door of the orphanage for adoption. Esposito is a bastard. But not as big a bastard as Blemish, who is acting out his own dream (shared with his monstrous wife Milly) of converting a sprawling 19th-century folly into a medieval restaurant, once he has conned enough cash out of the other dreamers.

Like Jack Sprat and his wife, the Blemishes are splendidly grotesque caricatures, he skinny with envy and greed, she mountainous, and much is made of their domestic harmony:

  ‘You are so clever, Stan.’ Mildred spoke through the steam of her cooking. She was standing at the stove with head lowered, slowly stirring the contents of a pan with a long-handled wooden spoon. It was to be Giant’s Eyeballs this evening, a dish Blemish was particularly fond of. He was lovely to cook for, he enjoyed his food so much ...

  As always, he was roused to tenderness by Milly’s hampered movements about the stove, her gruff voice and that bemused way of lowering her head ... ‘Yes’, he said, ‘... At this rate we will be able to have a swimming pool into the bargain.’

  Mildred rubbed a hand down her apron ... ‘Oh, Stan,’ she said, ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a medieval swimming pool.’

  ‘God, yes, with a cloister running round.’

  ‘... We could have busts of famous people from the Middle Ages.’

  ‘Dante, Machiavelli, William Tell, people like that.’

  ‘... on stands.’ Milly’s pale eyes were wide open and full of emotion. She brushed damp wisps of hair from her brow. ‘With their names underneath in those Gothic letters.’

Though the Blemishes are bad, that doesn’t prevent them from being cosily inventive, and producing their own kitsch variant on the Vision. Even for them the charm of real estate resides in fantasy. Indeed on special evenings they dress up in medieval crinoline and codpiece (‘They never transdressed; Mildred was traditional in her views’) and go in for some slap and tickle and home-made sado-masochism.

This low-comedy routine is a world away from Ritter’s desperate existential crisis, or Monti’s fastidious and learned reveries. As you travel the book’s road you’re moving between different worlds, and different genres of fiction to match. Each household is making up its own kind and tone and texture of life, its own ‘lifestyle’. Barry Unsworth winds up his creatures and lets them loose to invent on their own account. They are the authors, he defers – with sympathy, curiosity, amusement, pity, malice, what have you – to their tastes and energies. The result is an interwoven rope or plait of different-coloured story-lines. So anxious is he to hand over the authorial role to his characters that he invents a kind of local deity for the text, in the form of the lawyer Mancini, whom most of the others feel compelled to consult sooner or later. Mancini (who completes the cast list) is portrayed as a petty Genius of the place, a mildly sinister, ageless fixer who likes to take an aesthetic overview of other people’s frantic struggles and conflicts. He encourages his new clients to pile intrigue on intrigue, and to respond with ingenuity to the challenges their changed lives offer.

The speech he makes to Arturo about Fabio’s theft of their home provides a good example of his style:

Yes, this attempt to dispossess you, that is the heart of the business. His going away, that is neither here nor there, if you will forgive me, it is merely a matter of emotions ... People change, things form and dissolve ... Two acts of deception have already taken place. The first is the fraudulent transaction by which you two sought to evade the proper taxes by making a fictitious deed of sale. The second is the application of this fictitious deed by your companion ... A trick within a trick ... So we must now use a third trick to defeat him – or rather a series of tricks arising rather beautifully from within it, like the petals of a flower.

It’s obviously tempting to see Mancini as Unsworth’s confidant, the author’s avatar – his agent, as it were, on the spot, inside the book. His powers are strictly limited. He’s there to point out to the others that it’s no use for them to search for a higher authority to vindicate their competing claims. They are free – or condemned – to administer their own mess, and reveal their own natures in the process.

Unsworth is moralising against narratives of authority. Monti is given some self-conscious academic thoughts on the subject: ‘Patterns ... were arbitrary and creative, they reordered the world ... All the great pattern-makers had held on too long – Hegel, Marx, Darwin, Freud.’ But you don’t need to be an intellectual to encounter the mundane limits of invention and the way it recoils on itself. Even the egregious Blemish, in an encounter with the Greens, can get it wrong: ‘And because he was an artist in his way and this interview and its outcome were part of a shaping creative vision in which the Greens would realise they were trapped ... he was not so alert to their state of mind as he might have been.’ The word ‘creative’ is almost a term of abuse in this novel – but that is, paradoxically, the sign of Unsworth’s authorial line. He is (has always been) sceptical when it comes to thinking about writing as Art, and very much prefers to cultivate the kind of craftsmanship that lays bare its own tricks.

You can see this even more clearly if you compare After Hannibal with Muriel Spark’s The Takeover (1976), whose theme is roughly the same. This too is set in Italy, and deals with the way property and money can vanish before your very eyes (‘things form and dissolve’), but Spark’s real-estate plot has a metaphysical agenda, all baroque enchantments and satire on New Age charismatic movements. And she celebrates shamelessly the powers of fiction. Unsworth looks almost absurdly humble by comparison, like a member of some quite different novelistic species. True, Spark’s characters back in 1976 were the super-rich and their parasites, not today’s modest property speculators, but it’s really the difference between the authors’ attitudes to invention that is so striking.

Closer to home, and rather more suggestive, is Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, with which Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger shared the Booker Prize in 1992. Did Unsworth empathise with his co-winner’s vision of war-torn Italy, and his account of the ruinous splendour of Poliziano’s Tuscan villa, where shell-holes have opened the trompe l’ocil ceilings to the sky? Ondaatje’s lyrical portrayal of this dangerous paradise, still full of booby-traps and mines, where rooms have become aviaries and ‘wild gardens were like further rooms’, does seem to find an echo in After Hannibal, when Monti visits a ruined church in the countryside:

Nothing much remained now, in this place that had seen so much suffering and sacrifice, but the splendid proportions of arches and vaults. His companion pointed out to him the traces of medieval frescos in the apse, the decorative carving on the ruinous altar table, a small recess with human bones in it. The panes of the windows had long gone and the nets placed across them had broken and sagged. Sparrows and pigeons fluttered through the vaulted spaces high above. The whole cavernous interior had the quiet light, the air of hollowness and desolation, of buildings that the winds have long inhabited. The great slabs of pavement were thickly splashed with bird droppings, and tracks of rats went through the dust. Monti saw the perfect skeleton of a pigeon spread on the floor.

This joy in the luminous transparency of once solid buildings is shared territory for Ondaatje and Unsworth; and perhaps even the small earthquake that provides the climax to Unsworth’s plot owes something to Ondaatje’s mines, and the feeling that there’s no place of safety. But Ondaatje is more poetical, daring and show-off in the way he weaves metaphorical connections among his disparate cast – the Englishman from the Sahara, the Sikh sapper, the Italian-Canadian pickpocket, the Canadian nurse. Oddly enough Ondaatje (himself a Canadian born in Sri Lanka) seems more at home with his Italian setting – more proprietorial even – than Unsworth, who (though British) actually lives in the Umbrian landscape he describes.

It’s nonetheless characteristic of Unsworth’s negative capability as a writer – at once his strength and his self-imposed limitation – to have been led to his theme by another’s book. One particular sentence from The English Patient, where Ondaatje echoes Stendhal – ‘A novel is like a mirror walking down a road’ – might well stand as a motto for After Hannibal. This not only for what it says about how self-conscious we now are about realism, but also because it’s an echo of an echo, and thus typical of Unsworth’s indirectness. In the end, the primitive is the form he prefers: one thing after another, a string, a list, a ribbon. He is full of longing for impermanence, ‘the peace of demolition’. Not that he’s simply getting rid of artifice: if you look closely at this book, you realise that he is artificially isolating his characters – they have no children, no house-guests, no satellite dishes (just for example), he has made them more exposed and obsessive and sterile than naturalism would allow in order to underline the hubris of thinking you can build things to last. One shouldn’t make him sound too didactic, however. The plots in this quirky, austere, beautifully un-made book all have generously different endings, unravelling over the hills, wherever the chains of power and property lead.