Tuesday, 16 May 2017

The Dream of Scipio by Iain Pears

"Julien Barneuve dies at 3:28 on the afternoon of August 18, 1943."
That is the first sentence of The Dream of Scipio. It is my first book by Iain Pears. Luckily, I have another one waiting on my shelves. This book was such a wonderful surprise and I think he will be one of my favourite authors in the future. 'The Washington Post' has put it right to the core: "A thrilling journey through history, into the human heart and soul."

We follow three men and their beloved through history and it takes place in France. In the 5th century we meet Manlius Hippomanes and his beloved Sophia. In the 14th century Olivier de Noyen and his beloved Rebecca and in the 20th century Julien Barneuve and his beloved Julia. Julien is an historian and is researching the other two.  Olivier is the middle man, already having had an interest in old manuscripts in the 14th century, his researched gives Julien the story of Manlius. It is only in the very last stage of his life, that Julien realises the real consequences of the life and actions of Olivier. Here an ancient murder mystery is part of the story.
"And Julien returned to his books, turning in these years to the subject that had been in the back of his mind for so long: to describe the resilience of civilization, its enormous strength, the way that even when near death it could revive and regrow. Bringing its benefits to mankind once more."
The novel takes up the eternal story of what civilisation is. Who are the civilised people? We or the others? What actions are to be called civilised? What is morally and ethically correct? Is it ethically correct to sacrifice one person to save another? This story covers big questions on these matters and it is heartbreaking at times. It also shows that it does not matter in which century you are living.  In time of war our decisions and actions change. We go through emotions we could not even dream of and have to act in ways we could never imagine.

"Are we fated or not? Can we individually alter what is to come? Are civilizations as a whole, mankind as a race, doomed to rise, then decline from gold to silver to the brutality of iron? Was he - for this was the essence of the conversation he never had - fighting against the gods in trying to fend off disaster?
It is a wonderfully, beautifully written story. It started out slightly slowly, but very soon you are so entangled in the lives of Manlius, Olivier and Julien that it is difficult to put the book down. All of them have to make terrible decisions to survive and to save the people they love. It is also a story of ambition, power and survival in a hostile environment. Pears has managed to get so many of the most important questions about life into this story. It is magical. I have quoted some passages above, but I can't help but add a few more. The book is full of them, but I have just chosen a few that spoke to me.

"But she continued, because every now and then, just often enough, someone like Manlius came to her door and she tasted the joy of guiding someone whose curiosity was boundless, whose desire to approach truth inexhaustible."
"Do we use the barbarians to control barbarism? Can we exploit them so that they preserve civilized values rather than destroy them? Was the old Athenian right, that taking any side is better than takin no side?
Manlius retelling Ricimer's words on the decline of the Roman empire.
"He is dead, anyway. But I remember his last words as I left. 'The empire is not disintegrating because of the barbarians, but because of itself. One part will not fight, the other half cannot. The next time you have a barbarian army on your frontier, remember that well.'" 
"Here she laughs. 'You have read too much, and learned too little. Virtue is a road, not a destination. Man cannot be virtuous. Understanding is the goal. When that is achieved, the soul can take wing.'"
"Olivier had only his own mind, filled with the metaphors of poetry and half-understood readings from philosophy. And the phrases of Sophia, relayed through Manlius, came back to him hammering inside his skull. 'Any amount of disgrace of infamy can be incurred if great advantage may be gained for a friend.' And again: 'The action of virtue is rarely understood by those who do not understand philosophy.' Again: 'Laws formulated without the understanding of philosophy  must be constantly questioned, for the exercise of true virtue is often incomprehensible to the blind.'"
"'The evil done by men of goodwill is the worst of all.' That's what my Neoplatonic bishop said, and he was right. He knew. He had firsthand experience of it. We have done terrible things, for the best of reasons, and that makes it worse."
Have you read this book or anything else by Pears? What do you think?

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