The Dream of Scipio - Iain Pears (2002)

The Dream of Scipio weaves together the tales of three men spread across history, all at times when Jews were under direct attack - the fall of Roman Gaul in the 5th Century, the Avignon Papacy in the 14th and occupied France in World War II. The men are connected by geography, they all dwell in Vaison near Avignon, and by their connection with Neoplatonic philosophy and thought. Pears connects them in other ways as well, in their private lives and loves, each one in turn mirroring and informing the relationships, choices, successes, failures and deaths of the others. He deftly shuttles back and forth in time, here showing Manlius Hippomanes' negotiation with the Burgandian "barbarians," there showing Julian Barneuve's reluctant capitulation to Nazi rule, yonder showing Olivier de Noyen trapped in the power politics of the medieval church. The resultant tapestry, if I may be permitted to extend the metaphor, is sprawling, richly textured story, telling its compelling tale in bright colours, but not neglecting the use of light and shadow to show both the heights of human nature and the depths to which human spirit can sink.

Pears executes his book very well; the characters are well-drawn and their story, although we know early on what their fates will, no!, must be, the telling of the tale is enough to keep the reader interested. The structure, daunting at first glance, soon becomes natural to the reader, who begins to expect an anachronistic counterpoint to whatever event has just occurred, and the leaps from era to era are made with nary a qualm. The three storylines compliment each other beautifully, and although one could hypothetically extract each tale and read it as a stand-alone, to do so would be like listening to a single instrument out of the orchestra and claiming to know the symphony.

One effect of this structure is that the inevitability of death is everywhere; the device of the three ages demands it. We know that when Olivier finds Manlius's manuscript of The Dream of Scipio (a commentary on Cicero's work of the same name), that Manlius is long dead, and when Julian discovers Olivier's poetry, Olivier is long since dust.

Pears also uses the book to meditate on the nature of civilization and humanity, and does so in a less heavy-handed way than Franz Werfel does in Star of the Unborn (reviewed earlier on this site). Here the philosophy serves the story, rather than having the story be an excuse for the philosophy.

Overall Grade: A

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