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4.4 out of 5 stars
The Dream of Scipio
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on March 16, 2004
The jacket copy on this book is somewhat misleading, since it's billed as a mystery, which leads one to expect a more suspense-filled plot and also a story that moves quickly. This novel is neither, although it does contain a mystery of sorts. The question surrounds the identity and interactions between several historical figures in three different time periods -- the fall of Rome, the time of the Black Death in Europe and the fall of France during the Second World War.
The story contains many references to philosophy and religion, comparing characteristics among the three time periods and the people who lived through each. A key idea of the book is the question of personal choice during times of trouble. Does one hold fast to absolute principles, risking death and destruction, or is it better to go along with the opposition in hopes of ameliorating its brutality?
In the three cases described in the novel, the opposition is represented by the barbarians who sacked Rome, the oppressive Church of the Dark Ages and the invading Germans of 1942. In the first two instances, the heroes allow themselves to be co-opted by a barbarian king and the Church hierarchy, with mixed results. In the final instance, the hero teeters on the brink of choice, finally deciding to stick with his principles, even though in doing so he, his friends and his way of life are certain to be destroyed.
The book is exceptionally thought-provoking. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I read, going back and re-reading sections, and pondering what I might do in a similar situation. A bonus was that I learned a good deal about the Greek philosophers and about what life was like during times and in places that I don't know much about. This is a very good read that will challenge most readers and, in return, pay off in ways that the usual page-turners do not.
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on December 22, 2003
The central conflict at the heart of "The Dream of Scipio" is whether a civilisation should be defended with force, or whether it can absorb its enemies and convert them to its mores without in turn being converted to "barbarism" by the conquerors. Pears selects a common region (centred around Avignon) and three distinct historical periods to explore this concept. The three stories are linked by historic documents passed surviving over the generations, and by a common issue of Jewish persecution in Europe.
Initially the juxtaposition of the three stories seems a little awkward - as the reader is moved back and forth across fifteen centuries, switching between the three strands of the narrative in the course of a very few pages. Unlike "An Instance of the Fingerpost" this is not compartmentalised into distinct stories in separate sections. However, it is this deliberate use of a disjointed narrative that forces the reader to break out of historical complacency. Reading of the events of the fifth century, when civilisation is "saved" through conquest, it seems a perfectly rational course of action to save culture for posterity through converting the conqueror. Comparing this, within a few pages, with the Nazi occupation of France in the last century, and historical detachment is brought up against direct comparisons with more recent reality - can acquiesence and conversion really work?
The thread of anti-Jewish pogroms also runs through the story, along with other religious persecutions. This emphasises the horrific consequences of failing to maintain "civilised" standards, even if this is perceived as a temporary expediency.
Examining a single event from different vantage points was, of course, what made "An Instance of the Fingerpost" so successful story. That device is used here to equal success, but it is a single concept examined indirectly from different vantage points in time. It works extremely well, and - though not a book to attempt on a hangover - makes for compelling reading.
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on December 22, 2003
The central conflict at the heart of "The Dream of Scipio" is whether a civilisation should be defended with force, or whether it can absorb its enemies and convert them to its mores without in turn being converted to "barbarism" by the conquerors. Pears selects a common region (centred around Avignon) and three distinct historical periods to explore this concept. The three stories are linked by historic documents passed surviving over the generations, and by a common issue of Jewish persecution in Europe.
Initially the juxtaposition of the three stories seems a little awkward - as the reader is moved back and forth across fifteen centuries, switching between the three strands of the narrative in the course of a very few pages. Unlike "An Instance of the Fingerpost" this is not compartmentalised into distinct stories in separate sections. However, it is this deliberate use of a disjointed narrative that forces the reader to break out of historical complacency. Reading of the events of the fifth century, when civilisation is "saved" through conquest, it seems a perfectly rational course of action to save culture for posterity through converting the conqueror. Comparing this, within a few pages, with the Nazi occupation of France in the last century, and historical detachment is brought up against direct comparisons with more recent reality - can acquiesence and conversion really work?
The thread of anti-Jewish pogroms also runs through the story, along with other religious persecutions. This emphasises the horrific consequences of failing to maintain "civilised" standards, even if this is perceived as a temporary expediency.
Examining a single event from different vantage points was, of course, what made "An Instance of the Fingerpost" so successful story. That device is used here to equal success, but it is a single concept examined indirectly from different vantage points in time. It works extremely well, and - though not a book to attempt on a hangover - makes for compelling reading.
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on October 19, 2003
Civilization is the forest that people can't see for the trees; the crowd that we can't see because we're part of it. The three protagonists in Iain Pears' THE DREAM OF SCIPIO are surrounded by people they love, admire, respect, believe, detest, distrust, and hate. While each man occupies the same few square miles of earth in Provence, France, each is separated by centuries at three crisis periods in history: Manlius Hippomanes at the end of the Roman Empire, Olivier de Noyen during the Great Schism at the onset of the Black Plague, and Julien Barneuve in the midst of the Second World War.
Pears does not pass judgement on his characters; each man's fate comes as a result of what he does, or what he fails to do. Still, each seemingly insignificant deed committed yesterday reverberates through today into tomorrow. Each man is faced with the same unenviable choice: when the world is the burning house, do you rush in to preserve possessions and loved ones or do you sacrifice these people and things, letting the house burn for the better of future generations? One man will turn his back to the past and look only to the future, making his decisions strategically no matter what it ultimately costs him. Another will turn a blind eye, complacently living in the present, regardless of what happened in the past or what is foreshadowed in the future. Only one will rely on his own humanity and faith to guide him, saving lives even as he himself is sacrificed, without a second thought about the fate of civilization.
Pears compellingly weaves these three plots into a rich and entertaining fictional narrative rooted in real historical events. On a deeper level, however, SCIPIO raises difficult questions that are all too relevant in today's tumultuous world, because perhaps we are at now at a crisis point of our own. What makes any decision right or wrong? Would we, in a difficult position, make better choices? What should we believe when even truth is corrupted by time? History is our attempt to keep track of civilization, but it's a biased account, written by the winners, the ones that survive. Is it a flaw in human nature that whether or not we know our history, we seem doomed to repeat it? Perhaps this is true because, whether our own intentions are good or less than noble, we never act alone.
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on July 8, 2003
Pears is a super versatile writer. His books vary widely (from his light and amusing art history/mystery series to the much more serious and scholarly An Instance of the Fingerpost). The only thing that's a guarantee when picking up one of Pears' books is that it will be a great read-and The Dream of Scipio is no exception.
The book is an in-depth examination of three moments of crisis-the fall of Rome, the collapse of Europe during the first onslaught of the Black Death and the height of World War II. All three moments forced ordinary-and extraordinary-people to make difficult moral decisions. The stories Pears tells focus on the lives of three men-all of whom see themselves as bearing the torch of civilization at a time when civilization is in danger of collapse. Because these men see themselves as intellectuals and set apart from the rest of humanity, they believe that the choices they make are justified-but ironically, the choices Manlius, Olivier, and Julian make reveal the weakness of humanity.
As an historian, I was fascinated by this book. Pears really does get everything right (a rarity among historical novelists) but in addition to that, he makes us uncomfortably aware of how our choices can and often do have consequences beyond our intentions. More than many historians, Pears provided me with a deeper understanding of how and why anti-Semitism, or even more simply, hatred of outsiders, has flourished throughout history. A depressing but really thought-provoking book.
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on June 9, 2002
All writers make certain decisions about the potential readers of their work. "The Dream Of Scipio", is unlike any other work that Iain Pears has offered his readers. He places this work only alongside, "An Instance At The Fingerpost". His others 7 novels are omitted from the list of books he has written, which is an interesting insight as to how the author views his work. He evidently feels he writes for two distinct groups. I would not have agreed with the two lists until I read his latest work. The questions to ask prior to reading this book is how much do you know about many of history's great philosophers, and how much do you enjoy reading philosophy? Religion in the form of Christianity, Judaism, perceived heretics, Mary Magdalen, and St. Sophia all play a role as well. Aristotle, Salon, Cicero, Catullus, Vergil, Horace, and Ovid to add a few more names to the list.
As in his previous work we are given three viewpoints although this time they are not from different views of a single event, but three periods of time when there is a great crisis at hand. There is some mingling as the most recent time period of World War II is represented by Julien Barneuve, a frustrated historian trying to sort out what he believes are errors in the historical record surrounding, "The Dream Of Scipio". His problems are far more severe for while he tries to gain answers to the most fundamental of life's questions, he decides to work for the Vichy Government. By just agreeing to work for them he becomes as loathsome as history has judged this government.
Three women also take center stage in these time periods and their choice of identity will give you an indication of how complex these stories become. During World War II the woman is Jewish and trying to exist as if she is not, being French is meaningless as France shipped off her own citizens to the camps. A love affair with a Vichy government official is dicey to put it mildly. Then there is the woman who during her time period is labeled a Heretic who lives with a Rabbi and pretends to be Jewish when she is not. And finally a woman who pretty much sets herself up as a female Plato destined to corruptd the young. Just as with the first woman the other two also have made matches or attachments that are impossible at best.
The jacket on the novel puts the questions that will be explored in the book in addition to others so I will not repeat them here. "Power without wisdom is tyranny; wisdom without power is pointless", pretty much sums up the conflict that Mr. Pears explores.
There is no question that the book is very well written and equally well executed. I don't believe it will succeed as; "Fingerpost" did for it is a bit too presumptuous. There is also nothing subtle about what is right and wrong when choices are needed, what is terribly wrong is that people are making those choices.
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on June 10, 2002
This is a good book. It's much heavier going than "Instance of the Fingerpost," and rather less sheer fun. But the intellectual challenge is greater and perhaps the rewards too. The three stories run simultaneously and center on the conflict between moral virtue and political action. It's a worthy theme. I'm not entirely sure, however, how well Pears brings it all off. The ending seems to lack thematic closure. Or perhaps I just missed something. This isn't a book for plot or character--the narrator is very distanced from his material, lending a chilly tone. But if you want something challenging, different from the beach reads that occupy so much of our time nowadays, give this a try. Don't wait for the movie, for there won't be one.
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