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
Tonkin, Boyd, The Independent (London, England)
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 On-daatje) 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 Italian-ness, 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, pounds 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 Cal-abrian 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. …