Books: Shards of a shattered city

The Plato Papers by Peter Ackroyd Chatto & Windus, pounds 15.99, 140pp; Seen from a mythical age, far in the future, London today looks like a bad dream. John Clute celebrates one major writer's flight of fancy...

TO MISUNDERSTAND the past, it is not only necessary to have one in mind. There must also be an intuition that the past is ultimately unfathomable. This intuition postdates Edward Gibbon, and it postdates Sir Walter Scott as well. Not until the discovery of geological time did we begin to imagine that our past was unknowable; and that our world, too, might turn into fairy tales.

To write as though we were potential denizens of a faerie world became, soon enough, a tradition. A novel like John Ames Mitchell's The Last American (1889) could, three years after its erection, treat the Statue of Liberty as an icon future visitors would comically misconstrue. The 20th century, in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), is savagely distorted. America, in Robert Nathan's The Weans (1960), is radically misunderstood by archaeologists of the far future as they sift through its junk.

Peter Ackroyd's The Plato Papers, which is set two thousand years hence, comes as a very late example of this tradition. It is almost certainly the finest example of its sort: articulate, comic, wise, delicate, melancholy, exquisite. It simultaneously deconstructs the story of the past, and humbly builds its own myth. In short, this is a carefully-pulsed breath of a book, with an impact that sneaks into one's dreams.

There have been five Ages of the world, it proposes: the Age of Orpheus (3500-300 BC); the Age of the Apostles (300 BC-1500 AD); the Age of Mouldwarp (1500-2300 AD); the Age of Witspell (2300-3400 AD); and the Present, when a young, cantankerous being named Plato is appointed Orator of London, a region of the mind founded by Brutus and warded by Gog and Magog. The (flat) world is an animate sounding board via which "tokens of events, perhaps many thousands of years old," attempt to reconfigure themselves into memory.

It is Plato's task to shape these tokens of the distant past into contemplatable form. He addresses his fellow beings, who seem both corporeal and consubstantial with angels, and who cannot understand how their ancestors could survive imprisoned within three dimensions and tied to time. Through dialogues and orations - both cunningly similar to our own Platonic discourses - he focuses attention on the terrible centuries of Mouldwarp, when humans lived on a constricted ball of Earth surrounded by imaginary stars.

He explicates a novel, "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, by Charles D--". Its quixotic hero, obsessed by "natural selection", seems to Plato a creation of genius on the part of Dickens, a perfect parody of the "blind pretensions" of Mouldwarp humanity, which deems itself the pinnacle of "evolution".

He analyses a "comic handbook" on the proper performance of jokes by the great pantomime artist, Sigmund Freud. He attempts to understand Mouldwarp London through a fragment of angelic moving images known only as the "Hitchcock Frenzy". He dissects a region called America through an iconic figure known only as E A Poe, short for "Eminent American Poet". And he constructs a glossary of Mouldwarp terms ("`sexist': a proponent of the notion that there were only two, or, at most, three sexes").

For a space, then, The Plato Papers is an extremely funny exercise in the Martian-Sends-a-Postcard-Home mode; but the people of Mouldwarp - who have "been taught that they were the `consumers' of the world" - do indeed inhabit something like Plato's Cave. Soon the stars and sun, which reflect from the walls of the cave intimations of humanity's dread imprisonment, go out. Only after mass anguish do the denizens understand they have been trapped underground, and turn to the light.

Plato himself, gadfly and romancer, voyages to an inner cave, where he finds the London of Mouldwarp, which much resembles the urban-fantasy London created in previous books by Ackroyd, Iain Sinclair and other mythologists of the Stink. He returns, is tried for subversion, is found innocent; but leaves heaven anyway.

And The Plato Papers spins into dream. This dream is a velleity; but it is also too deep for tears.

News
Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Reach for the sky: there are around 250 new buildings of 20-plus storeys planned for London alone, some 80 per cent of them residential
architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
television
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
filmReview: The ingenious film will intrigue, puzzle and trouble audiences by turns
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Oscars
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
music
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
film
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
architecture
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower