With historical novels and biographies of Dickens, Blake and T.S. Eliot, the English writer Peter Ackroyd has devoted much of his writing to interpreting his country's cultural history in new and provocative ways.
Now he gives us "The Plato Papers'' (Nan A. Talese-Doubleday, $21.95), a short novel that seems to upend Santayana's dictum by suggesting that those who remember the past are condemned to misunderstand it.
We are 1,700 years in the future, in a London that resembles a mixture of heaven and ancient Athens. There, as in heaven (or what we imagine to be heaven), all is peaceful, ordered and immutable. And, as in Athens, we have a protagonist named Plato, an orator and interpreter of history and the meaning of life.
But the conventional wisdoms that emerge in Plato's oratory are hopelessly -- often hilariously -- skewed. Charles Darwin's ''On the Origin of Species'' has been reinterpreted as a satire by Charles Dickens; Freud is dimly remembered as a stand-up comic; and Karl Marx and a Marx Brother have somehow commingled into the same person.
They are all long-lost icons of the age of Mouldwarp, the era from 1500 to 2300 during which humankind mortgaged its soul to science and machines, embraced ''the cult of webs and nets,'' and ended up extinguishing sunlight and plunging itself into a Dark Age.
The knowledge Plato and his fellow citizens have of Mouldwarp is probably no less flimsy than our own knowledge of the earliest Egyptians. And Plato senses this. ''What if I was wrong or mistaken about the people of that time?'' he asks in a dialogue with his soul. ''What if you were meant to be wrong?'' comes the reply. For ''if every age depends upon willful blindness, then you, Plato, become necessary.''
To unblind himself, Plato somehow transports himself into the London of the Mouldwarp era, and is entranced:
''I had so many questions. Did these trees collect the shadows of the people who passed beneath? They had no answer. They did not even know the names of the trees. I asked them if the areas of grass were sacred places. I asked them why the buildings aspired to the sky. The birds that clustered on the roofs and in the squares -- were they the guardians of London? Do sundials control the sun? They did not understand my questions. ...''
Moreover, even though his boundless questions go mostly unanswered, he finds Mouldwarp society appealing -- random, disorderly, so different from his own serene and utterly predictable world. ''It may be that our ancestors were not so frightened of change, and of chance, as we are. ... I believe that they were content to face all the troubles and misadventures of this world.''
But back in his own parish, such talk is deemed highly seditious. Plato is put on trial, and the story moves toward a Socratic conclusion of sorts.
There are echoes here of ''Brave New World,'' Aldous Huxley's 1932 classic fantasy about a ''perfect society'' whose smug identity is threatened by its encounter with the imperfect, all-too-human past. And sometimes the novel teeters on the edge of frivolous, as in its glossary of terms by which Plato's world misunderstands Mouldwarp terminology: ''antibiotic: a death ray ...''; and ''rock music: the sound of old stones ....''
But ''The Plato Papers'' is sustained by passages of great lyrical and imaginative power. The opening sequence conveys an eerie sense of cartwheeling through time and space. The description of Plato's encounter with the Mouldwarp world -- our world -- is both funny and moving. And the retelling of the tale of Orpheus reminds us anew of the great narrative force of Greek legend. No sooner is this short, intense novel over than you want to read it again.
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