Top positive review
45 people found this helpful
Well worth sticking with
on 14 April 2004
This is a book which I find far harder to pigeonhole than other Iain Pears novels. Its certainly a historically based novel, and there are murders , although its not really a whodunnit in any conventional sense of the word.
This is a deeply philosophical book. It makes the reader confront the age old questions - is it an evil act in itself to stand by and let evil happen - is it ever justifiable to do a wrong in order to achieve a right - can you preserve civilization by acting barbarically ? I don't go along with criticisms which I have read that Iain Pears should have written a learned treatise rather than a novel on this subject. Like several of the characters in the novel, the reader is led subtly on a path towards understanding. The novel is never didactic, and rather works towards the conclusion that there are no answers, but it is possible for human beings to arrive at a deeper understanding.
This is not to say that you have to tap into these deep and philosophical levels to ejnoy the novel. There are actually three intertwined stories here, set in Provence in three seperate time periods. These tell the stories of Manlius, living at the time of the crumbling of Roman rule in Gaul, of Olivier, living in papal Avignon at the time of the Black Death, and of Julien, living in Petain's Vichy France. The three interwoven narratives are told with skill, and each held my interest. Iain Pears has the ability to effortlessly recreate the flavour of a particular place in time - readers of "An Instance of the Fingerpost" will not be disappointed on this score. His prose is clear and engaging. The endings of each of the three strands of the narrative contain twists which will leave you satisfied.
For all of that I do have one small moan. The title of the book is "The Dream of Scipio" which I originally thought was a reference back to the "Somnium Scipionis" by Cicero . The commentary on this real work, by Macrobius , ensured that it became highly influential upon late medieval literature and thought, spawning a whole poetic tradition of the "Dream Vision" . The fact is though that "The Dream of Scipio" - a version written by Manlius, a main character, promises to be at the heart of the novel, and yet it really isn't. Iain Pears really builds it up throughout a stupendous first part of the novel, then conveniently drops it.This is my only real criticism of the novel, but it did leave me a little unsatisfied. This is not , for me , a mystery centered on a historical manuscript in the way that Perez-Reverte's "The Dumas Club" is.
Make no mistake, this is a very serious novel, and its not for you if all you're looking for is a little escapist fun - and there's nothing wrong with that, either. However, if you don't mind being given serious food for thought, then this may well be the one for you.