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Authors: Barry Unsworth

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Pascali's Island

BOOK: Pascali's Island
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"A masterful tale of treachery and duplicity… Spellbinding."-New York Times

The year is 1908, the place, a small Greek island in the declining days of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. For twenty years Basil Pascali has spied on the people of his small community and secretly reported on their activities to the authorities in Constantinople. Although his reports are never acknowledged, never acted upon, he has received regular payment for his work. Now he fears that the villagers have found him out and he becomes engulfed in paranoia. In the midst of his panic, a charming Englishman arrives on the island claiming to be an archaeologist, and charms his way into the heart of the woman for whom Pascali pines. A complex game is played out between the two where cunning and betrayal may come to haunt them both. Pascali's Island was made into a feature film starring Ben Kingsley and Helen Mirren.

"Darkly ironic… Offers an almost Conradian richness."-The New Yorker

"A compelling portrait of a schemer whose shabby amorality scarcely ensures his survival in a world where treachery is the rule."- Boston Sunday Globe

 

Barry Unsworth
Pascali's Island

To Jack and Sheila Carter

 

I should like to thank the Arts Council of Great Britain for their grant of a Creative Writing Fellowship for the year 1978- 79, in the course of which a great part of this novel was written; and the Principal and staff of the Charlotte Mason College, Ambleside, Cumbria, where my Fellowship was held, for their kindness and support during my stay there.

Nothingness might save or destroy those who face it, but those who ignore it are condemned to unreality
Demetrius Capetanakis

 

July 1908

 

Lord of the world. Shadow of God on earth. God bring you increase.

You do not know me, Excellency. I am your paid informer on this island. One of them at least, for there may be others. Forgive this temerity of your creature in addressing you. I am driven to it. I can no longer endure the neglect of your officials. In spite of repeated humble requests no word has come to me from the Ministry, no single word of acknowledgement. Never. Not from the beginning. Twenty years, Excellency. I sit here at my table, in the one room of my house above the shore, on this island, far from Constantinople and the centres of power. I have calculated that this is my two hundred and sixteenth report.

It promises to be my last. The Greeks know. I have suspected it for some time, there have been indications, but it was only this morning, not three hours ago, that I became convinced of it, at the quayside, just after the Englishman had disembarked.

They know. I saw it on the face of old Dranas this morning.

Everything the same: pain of neglect; sea and shore outside my window; benign sea light on the few words already written and the blank pages waiting, on my plump, short-fingered, inoffensive hands. Yet everything changed. It may take days or weeks but I am as good as dead. Undeservedly. No one has ever suffered as a result of my reports. Now I am in the open, soft-skinned, like the crucified man. (I saw a man who had been crucified, when I was a child, in Scutari.)

How can I bear to die without acknowledgements? My million words dropped one by one into silence. Why?

I ask the same questions. Is it that lam too verbose? My style, is it too complicated or obscure? I am aware that my reports have become more copious over the years, but there has been so much, so much to write about, Excellency. Everything, anything, may be important – may be vital. Inflections of a voice, gradations in the light, changes in the weather – where are we to draw the line?

This time, at least, I have something important to begin with. (Important to me, I mean, Excellency: my life and death are equally insignificant in your eyes. You view me as I view the small fly at present entangled in the hairs on the back of my left hand.) I mean the arrival of the Englishman. Important because he came today; because with his arrival came a glimpse of my death; because I felt then some linking of our destinies.

His name is A. Bowles. This was the name on his luggage, and the name under which he registered at the hotel. He arrived at midday, on the Marmaris. Coming from Smyrna, Excellency. He is staying at the Hotel Metropole on the plateia. All the foreigners stay there. It is the best hotel on the island. It is the only hotel on the island. According to Yannis, the porter there (a one-eyed man, very morose), he is staying for an indefinite period. The hotel is owned by an Armenian, named Mardosian, who has featured several times in my reports, because of his connexions with certain disaffected elements in Salonika, that breeding ground of free masons and revolutionaries. They think, the Armenians that is, and Mardosian among them, that their race would be more humanely treated by the Young Turks, than by Your Excellency's Kurdish irregulars. Quite possibly they are right.

I saw the Englishman disembark. I was there, on the quay, as I am every Wednesday at that time. I saw him standing on the deck. He was looking towards the land, towards us. A tall figure in fawn-coloured suit and paler hat. Straight shoulders.

Again misgivings assail me. Are these things really important, details of dress and manner? I would like to tell you everything: the hue of seasons, stirrings of my heart and mind, the speech and behaviour – treasonable or otherwise – of your subjects, whether Greek, Turk, Armenian or Jew, whether believer or ghiaour; and of the European residents, who are usually neither. Everything. Then I should be the ideal, the Platonic Form of an informer. But we are finite creatures, though boundless in ambition.

I pause to consider the predicament of the tiny, amber-coloured fly entrapped in the fronds of my wrist hairs. At the base of the hairs, faint shine of moisture. The fly struggles and swoons in this swamp, amidst the miasmic exudations of my skin. (I use the present tense here, Excellency, for the sake of vividness, and because of the brief interval between observing and recording.) In fact there is no fly, no actual fly. The fly belongs to the realm of fancy. Useful, though: serving as an image of my insignificance in your eyes; symbolically entangled in my hairs, as I am entangled in language; and possessing essential truth – flies expire, as spies perspire, on this island as throughout your domains. You see what purposes are served by this fly, which does not exist?

You could not have known this, Excellency, if I had not chosen to tell you. You could not have known about the fly. I, your creature, imposed an idea on you. My only power. But perhaps you do know. Perhaps you know everything. What if, after all these years in which no acknowledgement came, years in which my sense of impunity gradually flowered into art, into control of illusion, making me see myself, and the island, and the people on it as things which in my reports I could create, what if all the time I was merely confirming what was already sensed, felt, known – my detection and death included?

No. I must for my sanity's sake assume there are things unknown to you. Like the precise aspect of the world outside my window, composed of sky and sea and shore. Let me describe it to you. At this time of afternoon, the shore is always deserted. No sound from the sea, no sound from the town rising on its slopes behind me. (My house is down near the shore, Excellency, away from the main part of the town. One room inside and a square stone terrace with a trellised vine. I rent it from Christopheros the grocer.)

At present, because of the slight haze or graining in the air, only the nearer islands are visible: Spargos with its almost symmetrical bulk, the long jagged line of Ramni. Below me I can follow the sweep of the bay as far as the headland, and see beyond to the pale heights of the mainland, across, the straits. In this thickening of atmosphere, the sand and stones of the shore appear slightly smoky, as if enveloped thinly in their own breath. Beyond this the sea is opaline, gashed near the horizon by a long, gleaming line of light. The light fumes upward into the sky. The American's caique will be somewhere out there, lying in that gash of light. (I referred briefly to this American at the end of my last report. He has been here ten days now, fishing for sponges. He has a crew of three: two divers – Italians – and another man, who does not often come ashore. They say he is a Pole or a Russian.)

I must return to Mister Bowles. I ought to have returned to him earlier, but felt reluctant-perhaps because I am afraid of failing with him: he is vital to the success of this report. How can I make sure you have a true picture of his arrival? You will know these island harbours. This day no different from others. The boat at first no more than a slightly darker speck, a small imperfection, in the glimmering line of the horizon; assuming shape from minute to minute; finally unmistakably what we were gathered there for: the little packet steamer, blistered white and blue, two strings of bunting across the upper deck, SS Marmaris, Gavros et Fils, Smyrna.

Mister Bowles assumed definition along with the boat. Distinguishable while yet a good way off by his tallness, and the light clothes. I watched him, the boat meanwhile nosing into harbour, and the water slapping, vegetable matter eddying between hulk and moorings.

He remained standing at the rail, looking at the town rising before him on its terraced slopes. The hat shadowed his face. And now something very strange, Excellency: I began to see the town through the eyes of this newcomer, somehow he imposed his view on me – even before we met. Some unshakable confidence he managed to convey, or perhaps simply indifference to the assessments of others. Whatever the reason, I was constrained to look up as if for the first time, to note the white houses with their shallow roofs and ramshackle storks' nests; the whole town enmeshed in the green of its terraces; the minarets of mosques and the broken towers of the Frankish castle sticking up through the net; brown falcons loitering in the sky above.

He came down the gangway. A sailor carried his two brown leather bags. He carried a smaller bag himself. He has a fair moustache, not drooping – ending at the corners of his mouth. His face is sunburnt. A longish, rather thin face, pale, narrow eyes-the eyes seem paler because of his tan. He paused on the quay, amid a little group of people competing for his attention -fiacre-drivers, children clamouring for kurus, hammals eager to carry his luggage on their backs. He took off his hat, for some reason, quite unhurriedly. His hair is brown, darker than the moustache, and smooth, parted down the middle. He holds himself stiffly, but there is something less than assured in his movements, a quality of diffidence or slight uncertainty, rather graceful in its effect. At that moment, as he stood there, alone and bareheaded, at that moment, I felt the importance of his arrival for me. (Even before old Dranas set the seal on it.) And again he imposed his experience on me – the voices of those around him, the reek of the fiacre horses, the squabbling drivers in their black skull caps and dirty calico. (The drivers are all Greeks, Excellency, noted for their powers of invective.)

I was moving forward, with the intention of offering help, when he looked towards me and our eyes met for a brief moment. Then he looked away, made his own compact with one of those besieging him – Dranas, it was – and they moved off together to where his cab was waiting, under the eucalyptus adjoining the quay.

I followed them into the town. On foot, of course – my pay does not permit much indulgence in fiacres. On the outskirts of town flocks of sheep penned, marked with red, reminding me again that this is the twelfth month of the Moslem year, and Sacrifice Bayram falls next week. The hillsides near the town are loud with the cries of these sheep. I could still faintly hear them as I approached the main plateia.

Dranas was still there, sitting up on his cab, on the corner near the Metropole. He looked down at me without expression.

I need not have spoken to him at all, Excellency. I was sure in any case that the Englishman had been taken to the Metropole. Perhaps it was the blankness of his face that made me speak. I asked after his health and that of his family – he has two grandchildren now, both boys. To these enquiries he replied curtly scratching his grey stubble, watching my face without a smile. And this in itself was strange. I am a well-known figure on the island, children call out after me, everyone has a word and a smile for me. They know me, Excellency: Basil Pascali, plump and good-humoured; shabby, but with a certain dash -the ruby ring my step-father gave me, my monogrammed handkerchiefs. I am derided, but not disliked. Or so I thought, until today.

Jokingly I said, 'I hope you did not overcharge the Englishman?'

BOOK: Pascali's Island
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