- Barry Unsworth and the Arts of Power:Historical Memory, Utopian Fictions
Toward the middle of Sacred Hunger, Barry Unsworth's 1992 novel about the Atlantic slave trade, a portrait painter attached to one of Britain's colonial outposts in West Africa unveils a picture he has done of the outpost's governor. "I am fair sick of what I am doing and assisting in here," says Delblanc, the painter. "For eighteen months now I have been painting likenesses of company officials and agents and resident merchants up and down from James Fort to Elmina.… And now [in the portrait of the governor] I have come upon their collective face" (327–28). Matthew Paris, the book's protagonist, finds the portrait both apt and chilling: "The likeness was remarkable: the artist had perfectly caught the high-bridged, disdainful nose, the languid eyelids; but the eyes were fixed, the bloodless mouth frozen in avarice and the whole face stark with ultimate composure. It was a mask of death that looked at him" (326).
This death mask is not what Delblanc had set out to paint. "It only happened in these last two days," he muses. "The portrait was finished, or so I thought, he had done his sittings. I was intending only some finishing touches, heighten the flesh tones, ennoble the expression and so on, the usual embellishments, you know. Then, I don't know how it happened, a touch here, a touch there, the line of the mouth, the set of the eyes, and this face emerged under my brush. And I can't bring myself to change it—it is the truth of the man, and something more than that. But of course he won't like it" (326–27). [End Page 777]
Indeed he won't. A portrait immortalizing deathly greed is hardly how the governor hoped to be remembered. Somewhere between the wish to have his power glorified in art and the realization of that wish on canvas, the bargain struck between painting and power has broken down. In this sense, the scene strikingly condenses the question that has preoccupied Unsworth since at least the 1980s. That question concerns the relations between art and power or, more precisely, between the fictions through which regimes of power perpetuate themselves and the power of fiction to expose and help us resist those regimes. The passage from Sacred Hunger is remarkable for the way it emphasizes both sides of this question. It charts the mutation of an artistic practice that serves racial capitalism and colonialism into one that reveals the death and destructiveness at their core. And it insists that this mutation is inseparable from a shift in artistic form. The political register of Delblanc's finished painting differs from that of his initial intention exactly insofar as his art has metastasized from one that aims at realistic likenesses into one that records what's before the eye yet exceeds the bounds of conventional realism.
Versions of this subversive mutation abound in Unsworth's work. In Morality Play, the novel set in medieval England that followed on the heels of Sacred Hunger, a group of traveling players makes the momentous discovery that its members need not rely on the authority of Biblical stories for their material but can make plays from the mundane fabric of contemporary events. This discovery leads to a theater at once more realistically "true" and more dreamlike than the one they had practiced previously—as well as one that implicates the powers of church and state in murder. In The Songs of the Kings, set on the shores of Aulis on the eve of the Trojan War, a blind Homeric rhapsodist makes songs from the propaganda fed him by Odysseus and his co-conspirators in Agamemnon's court. (The book reimagines the "cunning" Odysseus as a terrifying, manipulative monster; his disinformation includes the assertion that Iphigeneia is a witch who must be brought to Aulis and sacrificed, since she has angered Zeus by promoting a female goddess, Artemis, above him.) The Singer is in part a figure for something like the modern [End Page 778] media machine: he's bribed to promote lies that...