Burnt in Umbria

AFTER HANNIBAL by Barry Unsworth Hamish Hamilton pounds 16

Hannibal thought it was just the spot to ambush the Romans. The Baglioni dynasty thrived there for centuries on conspiracy and oppression, until Pope Paul III built a vast fortress on their ruins and raised tyranny to unholy heights. Today's Umbria, as portrayed in Barry Unsworth's wonderful new novel, is being avidly bought up by foreigners, because they have dreams of art and vineyards and because Tuscany has got too expensive. But it is in the not-so-des residences along a typical rural Umbrian road that Unsworth assembles his characters, who demonstrate that ambush, treachery and betrayal are still rife in those hills.

Unsworth establishes character with great economy, and at first it seems clear who is wearing the white hats and who the black. In the blackest hat is the uncompromisingly named Mr Stan Blemish, an Englishman dismissed under a cloud from the Public Works Department of Lambeth Council, who now advises people on how to restore their Italian ruins - purportedly, on how to find their way through local red tape - then organises builders from hell to help him fleece the punters.

Enter, in white hats, a naturally trusting American couple from Michigan called the Greens, who spent their honeymoon in Umbria and are now back to retire with their life savings, which Blemish has already calculated to the penny. Another disaster waiting to happen nearby involves a local contadini (peasant) family and their English neighbours, the Chapmans, all of who seem intent on feuding except for Mrs Chapman, who thinks everyone is behaving appallingly, especially her husband.

It's hard enough being homosexual farmers in a land of traditional prejudices, like Arturo and Fabio down the road; the addition of criminal treachery, as one swindles the other out of his land, produces another ticking time- bomb. Then there is Ritter, the German translator whose father had been attached to German military intelligence in Rome during the war and was responsible for the mass-murder of Umbrians. The young Ritter probably sent his friend Giuseppe to this awful end - unwittingly of course, but it has been the theme of his life ever since. He is obviously about to blow a fuse at any minute out of sheer guilt. Rounding things off and giving us tutorials on Perugean history and art as he goes is the Italian professor, Monti, who is constantly looking back over his shoulder both at his academic subject - the past - and at the marriage which his wife recently abandoned in haste for another man.

Unsworth draws these characters so deftly that the reader feels a frisson of recognition. It isn't just character which moves events here, though, but a kind of destiny - some Umbrian dynamic of human history. Cecilia Chapman suddenly sees that her absurd husband has cast himself as Hannibal against these contadini. Baglioni-style betrayal has gripped the gays and Monti. Blemish will rebuild, Pope-like, upon the Greens' ruin - once he has fortified it so disastrously that it falls down, and they sell up. Oiling each machination inscrutably is a lawyer called Mancini: dapper, delighted with the aesthetics of his own legal tactics, detached, compelling and described as "ineffable" by his clients - not so much Machiavellian as demonic.

Unsworth's twelfth novel is a superbly satisfying book. It is shrewdly schematic yet leaves plenty of knots to untangle and worry over, and its narrative proves a bona fide page-turner. But it is as a portraitist that Unsworth really shines, capturing not just the distinctive individual, but what it is in our natures that never changes and never learns.

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