Friday, 1 August 2014

The dream of Scipio, Iain Pears

When there is a war or a conflict, what do you do? How do you make sure civilization, your society stays intact? Do you try to keep out of it or do you participate? And when you participate, which side do you choose? And how do you deal with the decisions you have to make then?
These questions are at the core of The dream of Scipio by Iain Pears, an absolutely beautiful book.

It is set in France, in the Provence in the area around Avignon, in three different historical periods.
At the end of the 5th century Manlius Hippomanus saw the world change. He was a well educated Roman nobleman and the Roman Empire was almost at its end. There was hardly any government left, there was no more infrastructure and trade almost disappeared.

Manlius was interested in philosophy and he was taught by Sofia, a philosopher from Alexandria.
He was determined to withdraw from the world and surround himself with his books and philosophy, but Sofia convinced him he should play a part in making the situation better.

At that moment the only organization with some authority was the Catholic Church and Manlius takes the offer of becoming the bishop of Vaison, even though he is not a Christian and he has little patience for what he sees as illogical nonsense. For him, becoming bishop was purely the means to an end.

In 1322 Olivier de Noyen was born in Vaison. His father wanted him to become a lawyer, but Oliver had no patience for the law, he wanted to write poems. He joined the household of cardinal Ceccani, at the papal court in Avignon. By coincidence Olivier read a text by Cicero and this stirred his interest in ancient writers. He wanted to discover more of these texts and the cardinal often send Olivier on missions to find them.

At a certain point Olivier found a text called The dream of Scipio, written by Saint Manlius, the bishop of Vaison. It was a  summary of philosophical ideas and Olivier did not really understood it all, but the Jewish scholar rabbi ben Gershon helped him to understand the text.

In the meanwhile the pest broke out in Avignon, and the Jews were blamed. Olivier gets involved because he is in love with the rabbi ben Gershon’s servant girl, Rebecca, and he has to make some difficult choices.

Finally, in the 20th century Julian Barneuve lives in Vaison. He is a historian who researched bishop Manlius and Olivier de Noyen, because he found a 14th century copy by Oliver of the text Manlius wrote.
When the second world war broke out, the Provence was under the Vichy regime.
Julian was determined not to let Barbary get the upperhand, he had seen how horrible that could be in the first world war. An old schoolfriend asks him to join the Vichy-regime and despite himself, Julian finds himself working as the head of the department for the Censorhsip, while he also tries to keep the woman he loves, the Jewish artist Julia, safe.

Each of these three men had to make a choice; what do you do and which side do you choose?
In a masterly way Iain Pears combines these three stories, in the place where they live, how their lives cross sometimes and the women they love.
Each of these men has different motives for the choice they make and you think very long about these men and who made the right choice and why.   

The title is from a manuscript that Manlius wrote, and he copied it from Cicero. In The dream of Scipio Cicero wrote about how Scipio Africanus looked at the world and the society and the way people should behave.

The dream of Scipio is a beautiful historical novel. The three periods in history are well written and come to live. The characters are definitely not one-dimensional but have all kinds of different traits, good and bad.
Very beautifully is also shown how facts change during the course of time, as what happened with Sofia shows.

I read this book in 2002 and re-read it again a few weeks ago. Again I was gripped by these three stories, the way Iain Pears combines them all and the moral implications of each story. Again the story stayed in my mind for a long time, thinking about the choices I would make or would like to make in situations like that. I am afraid I still don’t know for sure, but this is probably something you never know for sure.

Published in 2002

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