The Dream of Scipio

The Dream of Scipio - Iain Pears

I suppress a wince any time someone recommends historical fiction to me. For the most part the genre is cluttered with loud, earnest characters talking about that fine young Mr. Lincoln with all those ideas! From the books aimed at children and young adults, to those door-stoppers for beach vacations it is rare for me to get into any book of the genre without any grief.

You can tell these books are traumatic for me.

Thankfully, 'The Dream of Scipio' skirts between scylla and charybdis and offers an engrossing, lushly described romance. There are three plot-lines at different eras in Provence: the troubled choices of a nobleman at the end of the Western Roman Empire, a poet and minor clerk in Papal Avignon during the Black Death, and a government official of Vichy France. The three are tired together by the dire circumstances of their times and their study of philosophy to greater or lesser degrees of success.

Manlius, the nobleman, writes down his "Dream of Scipio" as an expression of his understanding and tribute to his teacher; Olivier de Noyes, the poet, uncovers the manuscript and preserves it and reaches his own conclusions through the lens of Christianity; Julien Barneuve, the bureaucrat, attempting to better understand de Noyes' work reads the "Dream" and can't grasp it either. Ideas, as well as everything else is filtered and polluted with time and current prejudices. Pears underlines this with Manlius' initial anathema towards Christianity, Olivier's unthinking prejudice against Jews, and the practices of Julien's Nazi toady government.

Can it get muddled at times? Sure, but I didn't mind that as the novel's themes are ones I can return to endlessly. Having to go back over pages already read wasn't a drawback in this case.