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The Plato Papers by Peter Ackroyd
(Chatto & Windus, £12.99, hardcover, 139 pages; published April 1999.)

The Plato Papers, Peter Ackroyd's tenth novel, is by far his briefest, little more than a novella at 139 not-so-large, sometimes blank pages; but the story it tells echoes profoundly. One reason for this is its context in a larger narrative that Ackroyd has been telling, in fiction, poetry, and biography, for nearly twenty years. This narrative is that of the city of London, and by extension that of England as a whole; for Ackroyd, the English metropolis is a vast, organic, mystical continuity, a grand pattern whose innumerable fragments - lives famous and obscure, architectural, artistic, literary and musical texts, language, customs, beliefs - unite synergistically and timelessly into an all-enveloping framework, and thus guide, for the modern urban dweller. Each part of this whole resonates richly with many others, so that the characteristic Ackroyd novel is structured as history interacting with and finding a mirror in the present - horrifically in Hawksmoor, generously in The House of Doctor Dee, instructively (Ackroyd is a highly didactic writer) in Chatterton and English Music. When urban co-ordinates are lost by an Ackroyd protagonist, as in the recent Milton in America, existential and moral blindness will result. Ackroyd, like his fellow London novelists Michael Moorcock and Iain Sinclair, is a cartographer of "the mystickal city universall", and The Plato Papers is an intriguing extension of this art into the future.

The wide scope of this book, then, is owed to allusion - reference to the copious theme of England, the subject of Ackroyd's creative passion; but also allusion to all manner of literary models, many not English. This is a utopian work, and it refers to the original utopia, Plato's Republic. A new Plato lives in the London of 3700 A.D.; like his predecessor, he is a teacher and philosopher in a largely self-sufficient city-state, whose citizens lead lives of ritualized contemplation and keen civic involvement. Intellectual dialogues and instructive monologues are as before Plato's chosen form of discourse; these make up Ackroyd's text, the "papers" of the title. Through painstaking logical deduction from archaeological and legendary fragments, Plato attempts to understand the past, in particular our era, known in post-historic London as "Mouldwarp"; he wants his distinctly uninterested fellow Londoners to know their roots in ancient times, to be aware of other possibilities. Theirs is a utopia, the ideal of the "polis": a city that embraces its inhabitants in security and community, in a transformed age of apparent ease, the light of the Sun and stars replaced with the harmonious inner light of people and things, reason succeeded by ritual, authority deposed by consensus and the wisdom of mysterious guiding "angels". Ackroyd poses the question so archetypal to SF: can the lone restless individual deliver to the passive lotus-eating majority a kick in the cognitive rear sufficient to galvanize them into new alertness and action? Can a more dynamic utopia be induced?

But although Ackroyd frequently utilizes, as here, the techniques of SF, he is no genre SF writer: one glance at this novel's eerily erudite eloquence, its quietly implicatory vagueness of invention, and its decorousness of diction makes that very clear. Nor does Ackroyd's plot owe much to, say, the tale of Alvin in The City and the Stars. Plato is a physically unimposing orator manque, a municipal clown. His deductions concerning the Age of Mouldwarp are hilariously inaccurate, represented in a bizarre glossary of misinterpreted twentieth-century terms and characterizations of Freud as a stand-up comic and of George Eliot and T. S. Eliot as identical with a music-hall minstrel. The Plato Papers is a significant comic achievement. But one is always aware in these passages that Plato is the fool whose japes conceal wisdom; every statement he makes about our time is symbolically or spiritually true at the core of its misprision. His scholarly madness is always close to true vision. And so, as Plato is vouchsafed a full and accurate experience of Mouldwarp, in which he can wander its streets and speak with the souls of its benighted, activity-besotted, inwardly blind inhabitants, the novel's tone darkens. Our age is indicted; but we (the Morlocks, in Plato's cave underground) have an accursed dynamism that can counteract the lethargy of Plato's own sedate London, the home of the Eloi. The Greek Plato was the pupil of Socrates; Plato's future equivalent challenges his culture's values, and inherits the master's fate (trial for his subversive beliefs), if not the hemlock cup. Whether Plato ever influences anyone, whether he ultimately survives, remains uncertain at novel's end; there is no genre clarity, no triumphalism of the misfit. But Ackroyd has again, in his clear, cold, articulate way, made apparent the past's role in clarifying the present, and the future's role as the present's bequest. His London now exists in all three tenses.

Review by Nick Gevers.
This review was originally published in Nova Express, Volume 5 Number 2: Fall / Winter 1999
More of Nick's reviews are online at Parsec.

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© Nick Gevers 5 February 2000