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.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
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.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there