December 21, 2009
Iain Pears’ novel about the ebb of civilizations, virtue and evil spans almost two millennia but very little geographical space: it tells three stories set at the brink of societal chaos in the south of France.
Each of the three is related, and each shares a pattern. Writing echoed situations like this runs the risk of being either too parallel, and thus too obvious, or too vague, leaving the audience searching madly for hidden connections. Pears does an admirable job of navigating between these two rocky shores, giving enough connections between his temporally-scattered characters, but not too much.
All three take place at historical pivot points, at times when the survival of western civilization is not assured. But Pears is not telling the story of the crises themselves, at least not directly. What he is focused on is characters in those times, who see the looming disaster in the offing, but whose own personal disasters crest before the ones that made it into the history books.
Manlius, a worldly, epicurean landowner in late Antiquity, has to figure out how to keep at least part of southern Gaul safe from barbarians massing in the north, while around him the scaffolding of the fading Roman empire collapses.
Olivier de Noyen, a spunky medieval poet and fiery-hearted lad, instigates himself between the encroaching, obliterating Black Death and the furious, murderous anti-Semitic mobs bent on finding justice, somewhere, anywhere.
And Julien Barneuve, a slightly milquetoast and ultimately impenetrable academic, spends his days in libraries trying to piece together the pieces of Manlius’ and Oliviers’ fates, until World War II puts him in an impossible moral position.
For all three men, destiny is set in the form of a woman. For Manlius, the steady and wise philosopher, Sophia. Olivier has Rebecca, the servant of a Rabbi, and Julien, like-named Julia, an artist, who is, dangerously, Jewish.
Pears’ stage is set for intricate unrolling of a fascinating tale. And nothing is done badly. Yet, looking back on the story, its investigations of great evils, and, possibly more insidious, smaller evils, of the responsibilities of civilization and the importance of understanding–for all of these admirable themes, the book didn’t leave a blaze of meaning in my memory. The plot is more delicate than the times seem to demand, the philosophical examinations sometimes wandering and grandiose.
Beautifully structured, academically sound, ‘The Dream of Scipio’ is worth a read. But it might not change your life.