Wednesday, 9 October 2002

Iain Pears: The Dream of Scipio (2002)

Edition: Jonathan Cape, 2002
Review number: 1122

Although An Instance of the Fingerpost is a great deal more literary than Pears' other earlier novels, it remained part of the crime genre. Now he moves on to something else, an extremely literary idea in an accessible style. The Dream of Scipio is a historical novel, which has three parallel narratives separated by 1500 years but all set in the Avignon region of France. Each story centres around an individual, each a man trying to do their best to preserve what they love as their world falls to pieces around them: villa owner Manlius as Rome decays; poet Olivier de Noyes in the fourteenth century plague; and historian Julien Barneuve under the Vichy government and the German occupation of France in the war. From the start, the reader with even the most rudimentary knowledge of history knows that their efforts are basically doomed to failure, which helps Pears to create the atmosphere of the novel.

As an author, Pears seems to be fascinated by this kind of structure - An Instance of the Fingerpost also features multiple viewpoints on a single issue. In that novel, he used the idea to give weight to a mystery; here, it has a more literary end as it is used to elucidate the characters of men through history. The women in the story, though essential to the plots, are far less completely realised as characters. In fact, they are used to introduce the other major theme of The Dream of Scipio, which is an attack on anti-Semitism. The men's abstract interest in maintaining the culture around them is matched by a personal desire to protect a Jewish woman close to their hearts.

Of the three stories, that of Julien is the most interesting; offered a post in local government, he has to balance his repugnance for the regime against the feeling that if he didn't take it up someone more zealous could be appointed and that he might be able to do some good by accepting. The other major characters have similar choices to make about compromising their ideals, but Julien's is on a larger scale - the earlier anti-Semitism is basically mob violence springing from ignorance, stupidity and fear, while the Nazis went a step beyond that, putting technological organisation behind their killing.

The simple style which Pears uses in The Dream of Scipio (named after a philosophical work by Manlius based on that by Cicero, read by the other two men) makes it seem easy to read; it is rather like his Jonathan Argyll books in the way it is written instead of pretentiously proclaiming itself as a deep work of literature, which is what it really is. (That isn't to say that pretension isn't ever enjoyable, just that this is a refreshing change.)

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