Pascali’s Island, by Barry Unsworth

In the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, Basil Pascali has drawn a small salary from the Sultan for the last 20 years in return for sending reports of suspicious activities on the island where he lives. Nisi is a fictional Greek island occupied by the Turks. However, the Sultan's machinery of empire has grown so complex—byzantine, indeed—and his network of informers so vast, that Pascali's efforts go unacknowledged, perhaps even unread.

Except by us. The book is a series of reports to the Sultan in Pascali's inimitable voice. However formally he starts out, he quickly moves into an informal, gossipy tone, sharing details of his meals and fantasies. He even reveals that he has sometimes made up suspicious items to juice up his reports.

No need to do that now. A mysterious Englishman, Anthony Bowles, shows up wanting to do archeological research on the island and employing Pascali as a translator for his dealings with the local Pasha. Pascali also introduces Bowles to his friend Lydia, a bohemian artist who lives on the island, and the two quickly become close. Pascali tries to discover what Bowles is actually up to on the island, almost certainly something nefarious. At the same time, he must tread carefully so as not to offend the Pasha.

For me, this book was the rare instance of seeing a movie first, the 1988 film starring Ben Kingsley, Charles Dance, and Helen Mirren. I loved the film. How could I not with three of my favorite stars? I was fascinated by the decaying empire that had become too large and complex to survive. But the two things I loved most about the film were the depiction of Lydia's lifestyle and Pascali's loquacious but futile missives to the Sultan.

Unfortunately, Lydia's role in the book is much more circumscribed. However, Pascali's narration is given the limelight. The Sultan is so remote and so far above him, yet over 20 years of report-writing become so familiar, that Pascali alternates between prostrating himself to the Sultan and chatting with him. It's as though he's writing to god. In fact, he reminded me of a character in one of Jane Langton's books who writes letters to god and then balls up the paper and throws it up into the air. I think all writers must feel that way sometimes, that we are throwing our words out into the void, never knowing if anyone is paying attention.

I highly recommend both the book and the film. The book is a fantastic example of the use of voice—Pascali's voice alone could carry the book even without all the mysterious happenings and hidden agendas. With them, we have an exciting and thought-provoking read, one that makes me wonder once again how much we can know about the people around us, even those close to us.

What book have you read where the narrator's voice was irresistable?

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