Author Barry Unsworth's new novel, Land of Marvels, features an international cast of characters bumping up against each other in 1914 Mesopotamia.
Unsworth says the novel's setting — atop the remnants of the former Assyrian and Ottoman empires, in a place that would later become modern-day Iraq — contributes to the book's themes of power and its misuse.
"My novel is mainly about empire, about imperial ambition, the urge to dominate," Unsworth tells Weekend All Things Considered guest host Rebecca Roberts.
Ancient Assyria provided a special inspiration: "In its day, the Assyrian empire was the greatest the world had ever seen," explains Unsworth. "[But] it collapsed within a generation, and that seemed to me to sum up the nature of power, whether it goes up in flames or just leaks away."
Much of the action in Land of Marvels centers on the construction of the Baghdad railway, a line that Unsworth describes as running into the future, "toward the disasters we are familiar with now."
In the book, the railroad also happens to be bearing down on an ancient archaeological site. And added to the mix are various interlopers with designs on the region's oil reserves.
One character, an American named Elliott, poses as an archaeologist in order to scout out the oil. Unsworth says that the character's nationality was no accident.
"I think he combines two American qualities rather well: a kind of totally sincere faith in the commercial future, together with a totally sincere desire to profit from it," he says. "He's a mixture of truth and falsehood, inextricably together."
But more than anything, Unsworth says, his work is about questioning the language of imperialism.
"Those in power always find the right language," he explains. "I wanted the modern reader to ask himself or herself, 'What language is being used in our time? How is language being used to justify political ends that are not in themselves very praise-worthy or respectable?'"