“Do not applaud me. It is not I who speaks to you, but history which speaks through my mouth.” - Fustel de Coulanges
Do you ever feel as though the whole world is crumbling around you? Do you see the news on TV and wonder how long this current situation can last before we all perish? That we are at point in history where something momentous and disastrous is waiting to happen? A crisis, a turning point where the slightest ill-considered action of our leaders will bring upon us a doom worse than that experienced before by our forebears? If so, you are not alone, there are others around the world who are watching the current state of the world and feel the same way.
What must have been the thoughts of the last civilised Romans as the hordes of the Barbarians were clamouring outside the gates of Rome? How did the Florentines feel when the plague was upon their city and decimated their friends and relatives? The images in the mind of the soldier in the trenches of WWI as the flashes of the bombs and deafening sounds crashed around him, and the first whiff of poison gas was smelt? The emotions of the beautiful dark-eyed woman as she was shuffled on the train bound for Mauthausen? Can they have been so different from the thoughts of the terrified people of Baghdad as the bombs exploded around them daily? The businessman who is travelling on the London underground as the special operations squad men barge in looking for suspicious packages on the train? The woman in the US hearing the report on the radio of gunmen having opened fire in a school – her own children’s school?
“Things have never been more like they are today in history.” - Dwight D. Eisenhower said and he was restating the old dictum “History repeats itself” rather prettily. I read a novel lately that takes as its premise this endless spiral of history repeating itself as it corkscrews through time. The novel is “The Dream of Scipio” (2002) by Iain Pears. It is a historical novel, but it is set in three different time periods. Periods of crisis and doom and the stories the author weaves share a common theme, and are all set in Avignon in France. There are three protagonists: A Roman nobleman, Manlius, owner of a villa in the Gaulish provinces of the Roman Empire as the barbarians are about to descend upon it; Olivier de Noyes, a poet, in the fourteenth century plague; and Julien Barneuve, a historian, under the Vichy government and the German occupation of France in the WWII. The title of the novel “The Dream of Scipio” is taken from a Neoplatonic philosophical work by Manlius (based on that by Cicero), which is read by the other two heroes later in time.
The author tells three interwoven stories that any reader knows from the start cannot have a “happy end”. All three of Pears’ heroes are doomed – they know it, we know it. That is the tragedy of their existence and as we continue to read, we come to dread our own future, as Lamartine says: “History teaches everything including the future.” The novel has as one of its major themes that of intolerance, more specifically, anti-Semitism. In all three cases, the heroes’ abstract interest in maintaining the culture around them is counterpointed by a personal desire to protect a Jewish woman close to their hearts.
“Culture and civilisation,” Pears says, “is equivalent to breadth of knowledge, tolerance and understanding of others, dissimilar to oneself.” This is a novel that despite its obvious literary merit, historical allusions, philosophical questioning about what is culture and how we maintain our civilised state in the midst of adversity, is also one that is easy to read and enjoyable as a work of fiction should be. It is a novel of ideas, philosophical ponderings, a treatise on history but also a moving love story that repeats itself three times in the span of the 1500 years that the novel encompasses.
“Are you civilised if you read the right books,” Manlius asks himself, “yet stand by while your neighbours are massacred?” This sentence in the book touched me greatly – as I felt it was addressed to me personally. It is not enough to think rightly, be well read and be civilised by reading the “right” books. One’s moral obligation is to also align oneself on the side of right as dictated by ethical benchmarks drawn by one’s ideas and ideals, and make a stand, act – whatever the price may be… A fascinating book that makes one think and feel, a book of great poignancy and an extended deliberation of how one resolves ethical conflicts, emotional commitments, and the quest for the true meaning of human life. A complex but lucid book by a highly civilised and literate author.