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The Dream of Scipio By Iain Pears

Soul mates, centuries apart, must make tough choices

Sunday, November 17, 2002

By Len Barcousky, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

This wonderful novel comprises three intertwined stories that explore the efforts of three men to nurture love and to act rightly in worlds where barbarians are ascendant.

Each is inspired by a transcendent love. Each faces an agonizing ethical quandary. Each chooses a different path to resolve his dilemma.

Iain Pears is the author of numerous traditional whodunits and of "An Instance of the Fingerpost," a historical novel/mystery.


The Dream of Scipio

By Iain Pears

Riverhead Books ($25.95)


In "Instance" he tells and retells portions of the same story from the points of view of different characters. His latest offers a variation on that theme.

All three stories feature bookish heroes forced into action by the likely destruction of the people they love and the principles they admire. The three tales are set at historical hinge points, where events of a few days change life in what is now French Provence for centuries. While his pairs of star-crossed lovers appear very different, there are hints that readers may be seeing the same souls in different bodies.

Manlius Hippomanes is a Roman aristocrat living in the 5th century who recognizes the coming secular triumph of Christianity. Urged to act by a teacher of Platonist philosophy named Sophia -- whose name means wisdom -- he turns from literature and involves himself in politics.

He arranges to be "elected" a Christian bishop, despite his lack of faith, piety or even basic goodness. His goal is to preserve what remains of civilization -- love of learning and Roman law -- by making an alliance with a Burgundian chief. If he fails, he fears wilder barbarians will demolish everything.

To achieve his ends, he betrays his best friend, destroys his family and, most sadly, alienates his muse and mentor, Sophia.

A thousand years later, a clerk at the Papal court at Avignon named Olivier de Noyen comes across a number of Roman manuscripts, including Manlius' "The Dream of Scipio."

A poet and would-be scholar, de Noyen seeks to understand classical learning, which brings him to a rabbi named Gersonides. His poet's soul brings him to dangerous love for the rabbi's servant, Rebecca.

Just as Manlius struggles under the shadow of barbarian invasion, de Noyen lives in a time when the Black Death is killing millions across Europe. Drawn into political events he hardly understands, de Noyen must choose between his powerful mentor and his powerless friends.

Five centuries later, Julien Barneuve, mentally shattered by his World War I experience, seeks sanctuary in studying medieval poetry, including that of de Noyen. But after France is defeated by the Nazis, Barneuve goes to work for the Vichy government

Like Manlius, Barneuve seeks compromise in order to avoid greater evil. Like de Noyen, Barneuve finds momentary, uneasy peace in the arms of an unsuitable mistress. Like both men, Barneuve finally must choose between two bad outcomes.

All three lack religious faith; all three do great wrong in efforts to save something they love. Only one obtains any sort of redemption.

While some blood is spilled, there is little gore. Nevertheless, the novel contains one of the most bone-chilling acts in modern literature. When threatened with the unraveling of his purpose, Manlius performs a political act of supreme heartlessness.

Pears writes complicated, multilevel novels dealing with difficult issues. He provides no clear answers for the questions he raises. But he creates real people wrapped up in exciting times.

As a result, his novel is not an academic paper that might have been written by Julien Barneuve but a gripping tale that keeps the reader turning the page.

Len Barcousky can be reached at lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1420.

Sunday, November 17, 2002

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