The truism that “The evil done by men of goodwill is the worst of all” is given memorable expression in this brilliantly constructed historical novel from the British author of the runaway success An Instance of the Fingerpost (1998).
The title denotes a treatise on Neoplatonism composed by Manlius, a fifth-century (b.c.<\H>) nobleman and intellectual living in what would become known as Provence, who made it his mission to oppose “civilized values” to the threat of “barbarism”—through his scholarship, and also by securing a bishopric, then raising armies to protect Rome from invasion. The complex failure of Manlius’s own “dream” is juxtaposed against two parallel stories, which are literally linked to the history of his manuscript and whose protagonists suffer the corruption of their own ideals in hauntingly similar fashion. The 14th-century poet Olivier de Noyen, a collector of manuscripts for the flamboyant Avignon papacy, heroically resists the machinations employed by Pope Clement VI to turn popular hatred of Jews into an explanation for the Black Plague as divine punishment—and pays a horrific price for his commitment to moral action. And in the years of WWII, as “Free France” succumbs to German invasion, historian Julien Barneuve (whose studies have led him to Manlius’s text, preserved through de Noyen’s efforts) reluctantly becomes “a censor and a propagandist” for a government that seizes on anti-Semitism to ensure its own survival—and is consumed in a personal holocaust. Each of the three men is ennobled, and victimized, by his love for a woman chosen to be sacrificed for a “greater good.” And each endures a separation illustrating the Platonic concept that virtue is wholeness, evil the violent sundering of an ideal unity of harmonized parts.
This imposingly intricate novel begins slowly, makes heavy demands on the reader, and rises to a stunningly dramatic crescendo. Pears has leapt to a new level, creating a novel of ideas even more suspenseful and revelatory than his justly acclaimed mysteries.