June 2002

History’s cosmic crow’s nest

By Iain Pears
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Iain Pears is back, and once again, he's full of philosophy, history and well-crafted plot. The author of 1998's best-selling literary thriller An Instance of the Fingerpost, Pears has returned with The Dream of Scipio, an enormously accomplished work that stands as a learned novel of ideas, a meditation on history and a moving love story, all rolled into one volume.

The novel recounts the lives and deaths of three men of Provence, each born into different eras when European civilization faced great peril. Manlius Hippomanes, a 5th century philosopher-aristocrat, is a sad witness to the waning days of the western Roman Empire. Olivier de Noyen, a young passionate poet, watches as the Black Death ravages 14th century Europe. Julien Barneuve, an unassuming scholar, toils away in semi-obscurity while Germany occupies his native France and begins its decimation of the Jews. All three are men of letters forced to parse out their moral obligations as their societies crumble all around them. And as the triple narrative progresses, Pears skillfully reveals the commonalties and linkages between the protagonists.

"Are you civilized if you read the right books," Manlius asks himself, "yet stand by while your neighbors are massacred?" To examine these and other issues, Manlius writes "The Dream of Scipio," a neo-platonic philosophical tract which, through its influence, later shapes the destinies of both Olivier and Julien.

Throughout all this, the reader is placed in the cosmic crow's nest, able to trace the development of the various intellectual currents and observe how ideas are received in different historical circumstances.

The intellectual range of the novel is vast. Yet Scipio is far from a dry piece of academic discourse. At the heart of the novel lies a moving love story between Julien and Julia, a fugitive Jewish painter, and it is this romance, above all else, that drives the narrative and gives the book considerable emotional power. This tandem of thought-provoking ideas and dramatic human situations makes The Dream of Scipio a worthy successor to Fingerpost.


Mark Tarallo, a journalist in Washington, D.C., is at work on his first novel.

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The Dream of Scipio

The Dream of Scipio

By Iain Pears
ISBN 9781573222020

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