Love in a time of tolerance

The latest of Barry Unsworth's vivid historical novels brings to life a golden age of Muslim-Christian partnership. Boyd Tonkin meets him at his home in Umbria
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The Independent Culture

Angry that his enclosed orchards impeded a path that they considered a traditional right of way, local hunters used to shout curses over Barry Unsworth's fence. They even shot his cats and, once, hung a body from the hated barrier. It was, as he says on the terrace of his pink-walled, tree-shaded farmhouse in western Umbria, near Perugia in central Italy, a truly primeval gesture of spite - of dispetto.

On a golden late-summer afternoon, we have gathered just-ripe figs and sweet grapes from these five secluded hillside acres not far from Lake Trasimeno, a veteran tomcat playing around our feet. Yet this chilling little tale serves as a reminder that peace and plenty may co-exist with ancient feuds - and that unburied histories can rise up to shock the present. Unsworth's early novels show the strong impact of writers from the American South. It was William Faulkner, the granddaddy of Southern fiction, who famously wrote that "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

With his ability to make remote events into distant mirrors for our times, and a gift for excitingly believable period drama that shuns the twin pitfalls of archaism and anachronism, Unsworth has no superior among historical novelists at work today. After such masterly recreations of a credible European past as Pascali's Island and Stone Virgin, he shared the Booker Prize in 1992 (with Michael Ondaatje) for his sweeping slave-trade epic, Sacred Hunger. At the same time, he moved to this green and rolling patch of Italy with his Finnish wife, Aira.

By that time this wandering son of the Co Durham coalfield, who taught and wrote in Turkey, Greece and Finland, had been a published novelist for a quarter of a century. Yet the works, like their slim, bearded creator, have a timeless poise and presence. Now the constant gardener is an active 76, although the toil this steep land demands takes longer every year. He and Aira live in a house built by the coachman to the Count of Montemelino, whose castle looms on a nearby hill. What with hunters and soldiers, nobles and lawyers, Umbria seethed with conflicts long before the first starry-eyed English expat signed a property deal here - a history unearthed with tragicomic wit in After Hannibal.

"I feel very English in my way of thought, and I recognise Englishness much more than I recognise Italianness, even now," he says, over a glass of earthy local white at an outside table on which a cat curls with proprietorial ease. "I understand the humour and I have a sensibility for the landscape. I haven't lost any of those things, but I've lost a feeling for what life is actually like from day to day. In that sort of situation you can write expatriate novels, or you can write novels set in the future or the past."

This week, his 15th novel, The Ruby in her Navel (Hamish Hamilton, £15.99), throws another glittering bridge between then and now. It has taken him into an obscure corner of the Middle Ages in Italy - and, simultaneously, into the fears and hopes that overshadow modern lives. Already long-listed for the Man Booker, the novel unfolds in Sicily in 1149. The enlightened Norman monarchy of Roger II safeguards the rights and enlists the talents of its Muslim, Jewish and Greek Orthodox populations. Yet it faces a rising wave of prejudice as the Roman church begins to sharpen its crusading swords.

Sicily's golden age of tolerance had begun, almost by accident, when Norman warlords seized the island and its Calabrian hinterland from Arab emirs in the 1070s. The new masters realised that only the support of their skilled, industrious non-Catholic subjects could guarantee their rule. "I don't know enough about the period, and maybe nobody does, to know how far this tolerance was a question of expediency and good sense," says Unsworth, "and how far it had an origin in what we would call a moral sense of equal rights or of respect for other individuals." Yet this ad hoc medieval mixture "worked, and so it was maintained".

Reading about this short flowering while he pursued another theme (the wider European rivalry between Empire and Papacy), Unsworth found that "the brevity of it fascinated me, and the doomed quality". Perhaps "it was a failure of a kind... and history is littered with brief periods that seem to be of promise, and then collapse". Still, Sicily's multicultural experiment belongs, for Unsworth, to "the perennial desire for human beings in community to extend to one another rights and scope for life".

With its Muslims honoured, protected, and more or less in charge of the royal finances, the civil service and the army, Norman Sicily blossomed in arts, trades and sciences. The Ruby in her Navel catches this accidental idyll as its discords begin to shift from irritants to threats. Within a century, Sicily's Muslims had been shipped to a mainland colony, where they dwindled, dispersed and were finally enslaved. "That was the end, in effect, of Islam in Sicily. And if Islam had continued in Sicily, things might have been very different in Europe today. I don't know - it's a game of 'ifs'."

In the novel, religious tolerance never loses its edge of tension. "The word 'tolerance' ceases to have any meaning unless there's stress and friction," Unsworth says, "but tolerance there was." Our blond-maned hero, Thurstan Beauchamp, has profited more than most from it. A Norman knight's son, he has family roots beside the Tees - just like his creator. In a haunting passage, the call of the muezzins from the mosques of Palermo somehow reminds him of lonely sheep-bells in the Dales - as they did for Unsworth, hearing "that sense of celebration and sorrow, a sort of lost feeling" while a teacher in Turkey in the 1960s.

After his father renounced his estates to enter a monastery, Thurstan has lost the chance to play the gaudy games of chivalry. Yet, as a fixer-cum-spy with a cover job as royal entertainments manager, he has risen fast in Palermo thanks to the patronage of a leading Muslim official, Yusuf ibn Mansur. Unsworth paints a moving portrait of Yusuf, the shrewd, anxious bureaucrat who fears that the tide of history is on the turn against him and his values. "I wonder if I gave him my attributes," muses the author, with a laugh.

In Syria, the Second Crusade has just foundered in chaotic defeat, and now militant Catholics accuse the ultra-loyal Muslims of Sicily of belonging to "a conspiracy that goes far beyond the shores of this island". Here, as elsewhere in his fiction, Unsworth aims to reflect the present in the past without distorting the record. He wonders, rhetorically, how far "anyone reading the book will think, 'Yes, there are pretty strong analogies here, and this is saying something about invasions undertaken in arrogance, for purposes of expediency and gain masked as moral purposes.'" The answer comes swiftly: "I think that anyone who reads my books at all would have that reaction."

All the same, such echoes of today's headlines never drown out the passions of the era. On a mission to Bari, Thurstan falls in love again with his childhood sweetheart Lady Alicia, but soon finds this courtly romance trumped by his fascination with the free-spirited Anatolian dancer Nesrin. A book that starts by exploring the art of power will come to celebrate the power of art. Unruly, mischievous, Nesrin embodies the creative outsider - a recurrent pole of attraction in Unsworth's work and, perhaps, in his itinerant career. "It's impossible to find reasons for such things," he reflects. "They must lie buried somewhere deep in the unconscious mind."

Meanwhile, too-dutiful Thurstan must grow out of his habits of obedience to authority and blind faith in the system. "He is like quite a lot of people in the world today," comments Unsworth, "who make loyalty and consistency virtues without pausing to examine the nature of the objects on which they are exercised." The scales fall from Thurstan's eyes after an alluring, disturbing interlude among the "bewildering reflections" of a hunting lodge that brings to mind the treacherous dream-visions of medieval poetry.

Soon the plot quickens and thickens. A book that begins with a sumptuous evocation of Palermo's multi-faith mosaic changes gear into something very like a political thriller. "I don't think I've ever written a novel in which there has been so much simple plot - machinations and realisations and false assumptions," says its author. Without spilling too many beans, it's worth noting that Unsworth admits his twisty structure resembles "what they would call a noir in American cinema". In spite of all its pleasures and beauties, much about this "island of marvels" stands finally revealed as a sham. What remains solid is Nesrin's untamed art, a borderless bohemian rhapsody that Thurstan, a talented singer himself, vows to share. As she says, "a song has no home place".

Her creator, a singer of seductive songs that rhyme Europe's present with its past, feels firmly settled in Umbria. However rooted in Englishness, he visits Britain less and less, and confesses he lacks the confidence to set a book on native turf again. "Confidence breeds energy, and without energy you can't do it."

Besides, the British here-and-now exerts little appeal: "It seems to me in many ways a rather ugly little place, although this is the view of an outsider." In any specific ways? "I suppose it's political. I've so hated the foreign policy that it just colours everything else." His next novel will be set in Mesopotamia - not yet Iraq - on the eve of war in 1914, as the Ottoman empire totters and the British "were plotting with the French as to who was going to have what. They were carving it up in anticipation. And there was oil there..."

Courteous and affable in his Umbrian hideaway, Unsworth makes an unlikely sort of artistic rebel. Yet, in such deft hands, historical fiction can wield a lethal hunting knife against the crimes and follies of our age. As for those all-too-real hunters, Unsworth met a respected local figure with the power to pass on a message that brooked no contradiction. This intermediary put in a word... and there hasn't been an insult flung at the incomers since. Sometimes, as his Yusuf ibn Mansur knew, tolerance needs teeth.

Biography: Barry Unsworth

Born in 1930 in Co Durham, Barry Unsworth went to school in Stockton-on-Tees, studied at Manchester University and served as an army officer. He lived in Turkey and Greece, and taught at universities in Istanbul and Athens. His first novel, The Partnership, appeared in 1966; Pascali's Island (1980) and Morality Play (1995) were shortlisted for the Booker Prize; Sacred Hunger (1992) was joint winner. A spell as writer in residence at Liverpool University inspired Sugar and Rum (1988). He lives with his wife in Umbria, central Italy, the setting for his 1996 novel After Hannibal. The Ruby in her Navel (Hamish Hamilton) has been long-listed for this year's Man Booker Prize.