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Barry Unsworth - «Sacred Hunger» - New York Newsday Review

Authors:
  • National Book Critics Circle

Abstract

Sacred Hunger is a historical novel by Barry Unsworth first published in 1992. It shared the Booker Prize that year with Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient. The story is set in the mid 18th century and centres on the Liverpool Merchant, a slave ship employed in the triangular trade, a central trade route in the Atlantic slave trade. The two main characters are cousins Erasmus Kemp, son of a wealthy merchant from Lancashire and Matthew Paris, a physician and scientist who goes on the voyage. The novel's central theme is greed, with the subject of slavery being a primary medium for exploring the issue. The story line has a very extensive cast of characters, some featuring in only one scene, others continually developed throughout the story, but most described in intricate detail. The narrative interweaves elements of appalling cruelty and horror with extended comedic interludes, and employs frequent period expressions. A sequel, The Quality of Mercy, was published in 2011; it was Unsworth's last book.
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18th-Century Slave Ship On a Voyage of No Return
By Kevin Brown. Kevin Brown's most recent book is "Romare Bearden"; his biography of Countee Cullen
is due out next year.
Sacred Hunger, by Barry Unsworth. Nan A. Talese / Doubleday, 630 pp., $25.
CONRAD is the master who most comes to mind in the case of Barry Unsworth. Unsworth was
born in 1930 in the English cathedral town of Durham, north of London. Fluent in French, conversant in
both Turkish and modern Greek, he has traveled much and read more. He currently lives in Finland, land
of legend and stark, icy music. Hence, both by training and by temperament, Unsworth was uniquely suited
to be the admired historical novelist he has in fact become.
Again like Conrad, Unsworth is a novelist whose work is dense with plotting and pacing, and rich in
both writing and sheer storytelling. His previous novels, set in such exotic locales as the Ottoman Empire,
include "The Rage of the Vulture," "Stone Virgin" and "Pascali's Island." This last, made into a film
starring Ben Kingsley, was shortlisted for Britain's prestigious Booker Prize. A fellow of the Royal Society
of Literature, Unsworth is, unabashedly, a novelist of high seriousness.
His ninth novel, "Sacred Hunger" is a tale of the 18th-Century colonial slave ship Liverpool
Merchant. On ships such as these, unchanged since the days of Christopher Columbus, British imperialists
conduct the Triangular Trade: They sell worthless trinkets to Africans in exchange for slaves, whom they
sell in the West Indies in return for rum, tobacco and sugar, which are, in turn, sold in England at a
staggering profit. The slave trade, Unsworth writes, was "the greatest commercial venture the world had
ever seen, changing the course of history, bringing death and degradation, and profits on a scale hitherto
undreamed of."
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Unsworth's characters include Captain Thurso, an old sailor brutalized since the age of 12 by scores
of slaving voyages - a kind of "stoic sadist" with a "fortress of a face"; Kemp, the Liverpool merchant
destined, like his ship, for ruin; his son Erasmus, willful, obsessive and proud; Erasmus' cousin and natural
enemy, Matthew Paris, the ship's surgeon - a brooding reader of Voltaire; and, of course, the slaves.
Alongside these characters is a motley crew of pubescent runaways and sailors scraped off the Liverpool
streets by ruthless press gangs - all carried, at first fair wind, on a voyage of no return. While crossing to
Africa, alliances form, plots hatch and tensions mount. The Liverpool Merchant takes its human cargo in
hold in Sierra Leone and sails to America. During an outbreak of dysentery, the corrupt Captain Thurso,
deciding to cut his losses, begins throwing slaves overboard. Unrest among both crew and slaves leads to
outright mutiny. Thurso is killed, and the Liverpool Merchant is marooned on the coast of Spanish Florida.
Paris, whose wife and child have died (and to whose spiritual longing the novel's title refers) is seeking to
start a new life. With the aide of a trusted African named Jimmy, he and the other refugee slaves and
seamen create a brave new world, which over time - human nature being what it is - comes to seem more
and more like the old one. Erasmus Kemp, whose fortunes are dashed along with his father's, seeks his
revenge.
Unsworth's interest is in exploring issues of moral philosophy. His fiction, like life, is morally
complex. The third-person omniscience of the book is aptly suited to a tragic depiction of its subject: men
blinded on all sides by self-interest. There are no villains and no saints. The only true equality is universal
inequality. The meek will inherit the earth - what's left of it. And in that "difficult commerce" that La
Rochefoucauld calls society, the object is to get the best bargain - at any price.
Faulkner said the tamer was forever responsible for the tamed. On the theme of slavery, Unsworth,
while not moralizing, is unequivocal. At one point, in conversation with Captain Thurso, Paris observes it
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is not always easy to tell which side of the slave cage the slaver is on. Like Conrad's "Lord Jim" or the
neglected "Nigger of the Narcissus," Unsworth's "Sacred Hunger" holds its characters up to the "mirror of
the sea." Ship and ship's company become a symbolic polity under the harsh government of both nature
and human nature. Informed by the insights of philosophy and psychology, "Sacred Hunger" is at once a
book of acute observation and epic dimension.
So why is Barry Unsworth relatively unknown? The answer is a paradox: His genius seems his
undoing. He excels at supplying what is no longer much in demand: the classic 19th-Century novel. The
heyday of Hegel's "epic of the middle class" had come and gone by the time that he was born. A splendid
relic, "Sacred Hunger" seems a clipper ship in the Concorde age.
1992-07-23 - Newsday – Page 58
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