cover image The Plato Papers: A Prophecy

The Plato Papers: A Prophecy

Peter Ackroyd. Nan A. Talese, $21.95 (192pp) ISBN 978-0-385-49768-8

Is each century doomed to misinterpret previous ones? That's the central question of Ackroyd's new book, more a Swiftian compendium of social folly than a novel, satirizing many of today's intellectual shibboleths. In the year 3700, a public orator named Plato educates the masses about the important texts and beliefs of previous ages. It's an imperfect archeology, though, since destroyed texts and lost information cause him to attribute On the Origin of Species not to Charles Darwin, but to Charles Dickens, placing that volume in Dickens's line of melodramatic or romantic novels. He also puzzles over the computer age, rueing the ""despair engendered by the cult of webs and nets which spread among the people"" and cites Edgar Allan Poe's Tales and Histories as ""the unique record of a lost race."" Eventually, Plato begins to suspect that his knowledge about earlier culture is fundamentally incorrect, but as he moves beyond generally accepted assumptions, he runs afoul of those in power. He's placed on trial and is forced to defend himself against accusations of ""corrupting the young by spinning lies and fables."" Biographer (The Life of Thomas More) and novelist (Chatterton) Ackroyd displays his encyclopedic knowledge of world literature in this philosophical satire, rendering this effort witty and cerebral. The humor is especially sharp in the sections listing common words and phrases from centuries before, and their wildly creative definitions: ""pedestrian: one who journeyed on foot; used as a term of abuse, as in `this is a very pedestrian plot.'"" Or ""yellow fever: the fear of colour."" Toward the end of the book, Ackroyd creates a sense of how Plato's search for knowledge affects him as an individual, a welcome development in keeping the plot connected to the experimental narrative. Other elements are by turns highly intellectual, jokey, lofty and fragmented, but Ackroyd delivers a constant stream of surprising linguistic, satiric twists that many armchair cultural theorists will relish. (Jan.)