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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.