The Plato Papers: A Novel by Peter Ackroyd

Jayaprakash Satyamurthy

Knivesout no more
Nov 11, 2003
Bangalore, India

I really must track down some more of Peter Ackroyd's books. I read 'The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde' some years back, and it was a fascinating fictional insight into an endlessly fascinating character. More recently (this Saturday), I read his book, 'The Plato Papers'. It's a strange little book, very short but very thought provoking. It deals with Plato, Orator of 38th century London, and his musings on our own modern age, the age of Mouldwarp. There are great satirical moments here, showing up our obsession with time and the material world. Ackroyd's discussions of 'The Origin of Species', wrongly ascribed to Charles Dickens and considered by Plato to be his finest novel, E.A. Poe's historical works on ancient America and that perennial prankster, Freud's jokebook , 'Jokes And Their Relation To The Unconscious', and his hilarious glossaries of terms from our age are bravura displays of satirical wit.

But this book (first released on April 1, 1999) is more than a cranky dig at the modern world, no matter how accurate or not. It is rescued from mere contentiousness by Plato's own journey to the age of Mouldwarp, a parallel to the orginal Plato's parable of the cave. (A parallel parable. Heh, that sounds so cool...) To his surprise, Plato finds that the people of this backward, nearsighted era possess a certain undeniable vitality, a dynamism Plato's own age seems to have lost.

Plato proceeds to speak of his experiences in Mouldwarp to his audience. Like Socrates, he is accused of corrupting the youth, but in this case, he is ultimately absolved of any wilfull wrong doing. Nevertheless, he expresses a desire to be exiled from London, to see what lies beyond.

This book holds up a warped but revealing mirror to the modern world. It also offers a commentary on the concept of knowledge - how much of what we think we know is actually as muddled and misunderstood as Plato's initial interpetations of past ages? It's also fun, packed with allusions and amusing conceits, although everything doesn't work equally well and some passages are a trifle annoying. Well worth reading and thinking about though, and a wealth of mind-fodder for such a slight read.

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