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The Plato PapersMy preferred method of bookbuying is the secondhand source. Everything is on shuffle and you’re left at the mercy of local bookbuyers. It has obvious problems, among them the chronic discovery of a major writer’s secondary works. I spring for those anyway because such an introduction can re-create authors in different guises. Dreamers introduced me to Knut Hamsun, The Moon is Down to Steinbeck. It can also damage them unfairly. Mark Twain is forever slapdash and annoying to me thanks to Pudd’nhead Wilson. It’s a gamble, but (especially with major writers who I’m bound to read more of anyway) it’s one I like to take.

So I found Peter Ackroyd’s The Plato Papers, his mostly forgotten 1999 offering, in the basement of a Bemidji bookstore. Bought it, put it on a shelf for a couple of years, and having lately finished a re-read of some Plato, thought it a good time to polish this diminutive book off. Well, it’s actually 173 pages but that’s Nan A. Talese’s formatting trick. A small hardcover with giant margins and maximum use of white space at the start (and usually finish) of all 55 chapters. Naturally enough, much of the text is in dialogue. And what does it all have to do with Plato? Next to nothing, actually.

The Plato Papers uses the future as a conceit to talk about the past. In 2299 a collapsophe plunges London into a new sci-fi dark age but the city endures and by 3705 the orator Plato is entertaining crowds with his interpretations of “ancient texts.” When he’s not delivering orations, he’s conversing with his soul. When he’s not on the page, friends with improbable names are discussing him and his ideas.

That’s it. My hopes were not high, as it sounds like a glib work of postmodernism with no greater purpose than to showcase Ackroyd’s cleverness. Some of it does fall into that trap. The Plato Papers can be split roughly in half – while the second half delves into metaphysics, the first is all about the blithely overeducated joke as when Plato offers definitions of ancient idioms.

dead end: a place where corpses were taken … Those who chose to inhabit these areas apparently suffered from a ‘death wish.’
literature: a word of unknown provenance, generally attributed to ‘litter’ or waste.

I mean, come on! These are glorified puns, funny literalisms it can’t have taken Ackroyd more than a second to compile. Occasionally, one hits the mark:

pedestrian: one who journeyed on foot. Used as a term of abuse, as in ‘this is a very pedestrian plot.’ It is possible, therefore, that in ancient days walking was considered to be an ignoble or unnatural activity; this would explain the endless varieties of transport used to convey people for very short distances.

This is amusing yet reflective. The conclusion is wrong but it feels plausible and the verdict is pleasantly illuminating. It’s also very lightly treated, which sums up my experience with the whole work. Some call it a satire, but it’s not mean enough by half. And as a novel of ideas, it puts all the right ingredients together…in the smallest possible amounts. Throughout, Ackroyd is making a point about the treatment of history, the interpretations we make about “the wrong ages” (essentially how we always feel about the past). Each new generation unaware that history has them in its gunsights as well.

Madrigal: … But why are the beliefs of our ancestors so ridiculous? I am sure that they were sincerely held.
Ornatus: No doubt.
Madrigal: Perhaps, in the future someone might laugh at – well – you and me.
Ornatus: There is nothing funny about us.
Madrigal: As far as we know.

Of course, The Plato Papers is too diffuse to really impress with its intellect. It flits from scene to scene and all the critical praise adorning the dust jacket can’t obscure the fact that this is foremost a light read. It wants to amuse. Plato’s orations are postmodern routines and they form the bulk of the text. Dickens and Darwin are confuted in the best sequence, offering The Origin of Species as a novel with an unreliable narrator at the helm. Freud (pronounced Fraud, ha ha) is assumed a comedian. Poe’s Tales and Histories is taken at face value as a factual account of the American people. Its inhabitants dwelled in very large and very old houses which, perhaps because of climactic conditions, were often covered with lichen or ivy. In many respects the architecture of these ancient mansions conformed to the same pattern; they contained libraries and galleries, chambers of antique painting and long corridors leading in serpentine fashion to great bolted doors. … they were a highly nervous people, who suffered from a morbid acuteness of their faculties. They experienced continually ‘a vague feeling of terror and despair’. They were prone to the most extreme sensations of wonder or hilarity and there seems to have been an unusual amount of lunacy among the young.

As Plato talks to his soul, the cheap jokes go by the wayside and Ackroyd gets down to business. History is bent and run through Plato’s Cave. Willful illusion, rather than simple ignorance, becomes a main tenet of human behaviour. The stubborn Ornatus says “Ignorance is better than doubt” and the citizens of London reject Plato’s new and more accurate findings on ancient ways because to countenance them would introduce uncertainty – and require humility. To class your ancestors as ignorant makes you enlightened; to call them barbarians is to make yourself civilized. Plato tests the limits of his world, not by journeying to another, but by admitting his own errors. This makes him a pariah and he is soon put on trial…

In a final prank, Ackroyd chose not to finish his fable with an ending everyone already knows. Perhaps he thought that would be predictable, or would clash with his established tone. Or perhaps he was making the point that, even while unconscious of the past, history does not always repeat and there is hope for the human race. Deeper meaning aside, Ackroyd’s finale is diffuse, anti-climactic and very appropriately the final word in the book is dream.

Yes, there’s a fair amount of artistry on display in The Plato Papers. However, it’s not likely to satisfy many readers with its combination of highly metaphorical sci-fi and postmodern jokery. Sure, it stimulates the intellect, but it bounces around too much to feel really substantial and based on this sample it makes sense that he’s more known for his non-fiction these days. I enjoyed it but I would never claim it qualifies as a necessary addition to the library of any non-Ackroyd fan. The characters are flat, the prose is average, the imagery does not dazzle…and yet the whole concoction is so odd I can’t help but like it. In its favour, it absolutely does have the ability to spark thought. It’s one of those cases where the reviews are a necessary addendum to the book. There’s an excellent essay on it at London Fictions that I direct you to as a case in point. Ackroyd’s erudite. In the end I’m glad I picked it up.

Peter Ackroyd

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