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Losing Nelson
By BARRY UNSWORTH

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday
ISBN 0-385-48652-9 352 pages 6-1/4" x 9-1/4"

Reviewed by Jules Siegel

On the surface, Barry Unsworth's Losing Nelson is a rather slight black comedy of an emotionally disturbed biographer's struggle to come to terms with a disgraceful episode in the life of Britain's greatest hero, Lord Horatio Nelson. Yet the novel evolves relentlessly into a searing indictment that will probably have its greatest political and emotional impact in England but will stand on its own as a compelling achievement anywhere else, in any other language.

Each character in the book is drawn with exquisite realism, but nonetheless symbolizes some greater meaning. It's clear that Unsworth is not merely writing about Charles Cleasby -- an eccentric British amateur scholar, Miss Lily -- his practical secretary, and the solution to an academic dispute: did Lord Horatio Nelson knowingly deliver hundreds of men, women and children to prison, torture, and the gallows despite a treaty assuring their safe conduct from Naples? Losing Nelson is about how heroes are created by the same process that produces serial killers.

As the Cleasby discovers, Admiral Nelson's celebrated courage and genius cannot disguise the fact that he was driven by greed for glory and gold to the exclusion of all normal human values. He did not serve freedom, as English school children are taught, but the most vicious tyranny. Judged by the professed English values of fair play and honesty, Lord Horatio Nelson was a wretched criminal who stained British history with a despicable act of ruthless betrayal that only a Stalin or Hitler could have admired, much less excused.

His victories cost him an eye and an arm and -- eventually-- his life, but Nelson's rewards were fame, gold, a beautiful woman -- Lady Emma Hamilton, whom openly he shared with her husband -- and the lavish gratitude of the despots he saved from Napolean's armies: "The gold medal for Cape St. Vincent, the Star of the Bath, the Sicilian order conferred by King Ferdinand, and a resplendent aigrette, or plume of triumph, from the grand signior of Turkey, which had thirteen strands of diamonds, one for each of the French warships taken or destroyed at the Nile, and the middle a radiant star turning on its centre by means of concealed clockwork."

Unsworth brings it all to astonishingly vivid life through the eyes of Nelson's would-be biographer, who is so obsessed with his subject that he considers himself the hero's dark side. As Nelson is all courage, so Cleasby is all coward, drowning in severe paranoias and compulsions that he attempts to escape by attaching himself to the great admiral, whose life and battles he acts out in precise daily rituals. He has a billiard table covered with blue glass on which he moves model ships in perfect parallel to Nelson's battles.

Cleasby, it seems, is the British upper class at the end of the hawser tied to Nelson's treachery at Naples. Readers familiar with the works of Robert Graves and Sir James Fraser will recognize him as the sacred king's tanist, the dark twin who will eventually kill him and replace him as the queen's consort. Miss Lily, as sane as Cleasby is deranged, is the voice of modern, sensible, practical, socialist England, but also the oracle who tells the truth.

"They cut pieces off him, didn't they?" she observes, commenting on Nelson's childhood. "He was an orphan, wasn't he? His mother died when he was nine, and he was only twelve when he went away to sea.... I don't know whether you'd call it cutting pieces off or just sort of putting him in a narrow place where he couldn't grow." Elsewhere, she calls Nelson a "sort of serial killer."

Like Ariadne in the palace of the Minotaur, she offers Cleasby a way out of his labyrinth. Unsworth never so much as points to his mythological, Joycean metaphor. The book is always perfectly human. Its plot is even conventional: will Cleasby follow Miss Lily out of the dark shadows and weird reflections of his maze and to the real world of her daffodils and home-made cookies?

The book approaches its climax as Tony Blair puts an end to Thatcherism. Unsworth brings this single moment of political news into the story like a sudden exclamation point revealing yet another level of insight. Southern Italy never recovered from the massacre of its intellectual elite at Naples. Neither did Europe. The triumphs of Margaret Thatcher (and Ronald Reagan, her American counterpart) were the historical consequences of Lord Horatio Nelson's service to his royal masters. It's time to discard Nelson and all he means, Unsworth seems to imply.

In Losing Nelson, Unsworth combines impeccably lucid prose with convincing historical and human detail in a novel that keeps the reader eagerly turning pages. Unfortunately, many will be disappointed by the book's ending, which flows inexorably from its internal logic, but offers little to those who favor Miss Lily's clarity to the murky British imperial hypocrisy summed up in the Tsarist Russian epithet "perfidious Albion."