Denis Diderot, hero of the Enlightenment, battles dark forces galore, in novelist Prange’s U.S. debut.
A bunch of the boys were whoopin’ it up in the Café Procope—philosophers, free-thinkers, assorted roisterers and rabble-rousers—when suddenly a great idea was born. It’s Paris, 1746, the Café Procope, an established hang-out for France’s young-gun intellectuals. A publisher is in the house this particular night, and it’s he who first mentions that high-octane word: encyclopedia, though at the time it hardly seems all that explosive. The publisher views it modestly enough, but the effect on a certain restless spirit is electrifying. Diderot, writer, visionary, ambitious to his eyeteeth, sees it as an opportunity to collect in one place all the accumulated knowledge of humankind, a kind of utilitarian dictionary, addressing and defining everything on earth from astronomy to zithers. But it’s an idea that quickly generates jumpiness in the corridors of power. Shrewdly, Father Radominsky, a Jesuit priest sent to France as confessor to Louis XV’s Queen Maria, connects the epic quality of the Encyclopedia with anti-establishment skepticism. He’s right, of course, and so the time-honored struggle between rebellion and repression, between the status quo and that which attacks it, is joined once again, neither side giving an inch. As a bloodied but unbowed Diderot courageously taunts: “It is my job to write books, and yours to burn them.” Plagued, however, by censorship, money and priestly problems, Diderot, at his lowest ebb, is saved only by the boundless love of a truly good woman, who may in fact be too good to be true.
Published successfully in Germany in 2003, the novel arrives freshly translated by the reliable Steven T. Murray, who did Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Despite some soapy bits, it deserves to score with American audiences, too.