Basil Pascali is a spy for the Ottoman Empire, which as of 1908 is well into the terminal phase of its decline. Nevertheless, on the tiny Greek island where he has taken up residency, he has been writing and filing his reports for nigh-on twenty years and being paid just as dutifully for them. The money doesn’t buy as much anymore, and his pleas for a raise have gone unheard, but he knows nothing else other than this life. Companionship is a luxury he can’t afford (in any sense), and trust is for other people.
One day there arrives an Englishman, allegedly interested in writing a book about the local archaeological finds. Pascali’s long-abated instincts as a spy are raised, and he finds the Englishman is hiding more than a few things — not least of which is a dalliance with a local woman, a painter whom Basil has been long coveting but unable to be more than passingly friendly with. Then the Englishman makes a discovery — a statue which could be of astonishing value — and Pascali finds himself stuck between remaining a passive observer and an active participant. His paranoia, his uncertainty about his new acquaintances, and his grim fatalism about the real meaning of his post eventually combine, and out comes tragedy.
This short but effective story works not only as a descriptively-opulent Greek Isles travelogue (Unsworth lived in Italy, so he was ostensibly within stone’s throw of the geography described here), but as a portrait of a peculiar mind-set: a man who is “European” but all the same not a citizen of any particular country. This lack of real roots works against him in time, as he finds he is far more mercenary and treacherous than any of his alleged enemies — some of whom inadvertently encourage him to indulge in his worst instincts. Unsworth’s writing brings to mind Graham Greene, where a world-weary narrator looks out at the tempestuous, underhanded competition between nations as embodied in specific personalities, and shakes his head in dismay — without excluding himself, of course.
A film version of the story, and a very good one, was made in 1990 but only released on VHS. No DVD was ever released; the film was managed by Lions Gate, so it’s not clear if they still own the rights. It would be nice to have this back, even if only in a video-on-demand edition.