Sacred Hunger, by Barry Unsworth

Sacred Hunger is set a few decades before the American Revolution or French Revolution — but we feel them brewing in the novel’s every line.

Unsworth makes the eighteenth century play itself out in microcosm as the story of a single slave-ship. The captain, Saul Thurso, is the ship’s absolute despot, savagely superstitious and insane. He’s authority made flesh, having “reduced the world to a dominant principle and wrenched his moral frame to accommodate it” — the dominant principle being the “sacred hunger” for profit to which the title alludes. Matthew Paris is the ship’s doctor, a radical free-thinker, a man of science and compassion whose actions help spark a mutiny.

Rereading Sacred Hunger, I was struck by the consistently felicitous word choices, the “distraught cries of lapwings plunging in the wind,” the “cruising jaws of crocodiles,” a snake “dandified as only the very venomous can be, in bands of red and black and yellow…” I think of something G.K. Chesterton wrote about Robert Louis Stevenson — “Everybody who has been at the seaside has noted how sharp and highly coloured, like painted caricatures, appear even the most ordinary figures as they pass in profile to and fro against the blue dado of the sea. There is something also of that hard light that falls full and pale upon ships and open shores; and even more, it need not be said, of a certain salt and acrid clearness in the air. But it is notably the case in the outlines of these maritime figures. They are all edges and they stand by the sea, that is the edge of the world.”

“This is but a rough experimental method; but it will be found useful to make the experiment, of calling up all the Stevensonian scenes that recur most readily to the memory; and noting this bright hard quality in shape and hue.”

Sacred Hunger is Stevensonian in its verbal precision, precision somehow contributing to a bright hard maritime quality of light that pervades the book. After mutinying, the surviving crew members — many of them press-ganged and scarcely freer than the slaves — band together with the surviving slaves to settle in the swamps of Florida.

We do not see this society functioning until Part Nine of the novel. There’s an interesting structural observation to be made here. Sacred Hunger opens with a second-hand account of a mulatto’s childhood memories of an inter-racial paradise. The plot builds up to the moment of revolution that leads to this utopia — then we skip forward twelve years, for a detailed account of the machinations to destroy the utopia. Accordingly when in Part Nine we experience the quasi-Rousseauist alternative society, we know it’s a world about to be destroyed from without – while Unsworth simultaneously shows us that it contains the seeds of its own internal destruction. For a novelist working around the time the Soviet Union collapsed, it took a lot of craft to imagine a utopia.

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