A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I bought Iain Pears’s An Instance of the Fingerpost because I was looking for books which reflected the time of their writing as consciously as the time of their story, and I certainly found it here.The Name of the Rose name-check in the reviews is not inaccurate. An Instance of the Fingerpost, too, is a long book thickly packed with characters and ideas, and as with the Eco, both characters and ideas turn out to be clues. It’s 1665: King Charles II is not yet safe on his restored throne, and as in post-Hitlerian Europe, everyone’s trying to find their footing amid the rubble of the war. Four self-contained, self-conscious accounts by four interconnected characters – an Italian doctor, a Royalist student, a theologian and government codebreaker, and an antiquarian – pivot on the same public and private events. Pears has done a remarkable job of plotting: each has a different reason for writing his account, each had different motives for his actions, and each is unreliable in a different way. Pears not only successfully evokes the raging scientific, religious, social and political ferment of the times, he harnesses it and its actors to his own purposes, and sets it in a vividly realised and accurate historical world.This makes it all sound rather strenuous, and Fingerpost certainly isn’t a straightforward read. But Pears can bring even well-documented historical characters and enmities wholly and eccentrically to life, and for the most part I found his narrative voices wonderfully characterised and compelling. The plot is staggeringly complicated, but it can still be enjoyed when the finer details elude us, because the writing and setting are so rich. I had my quibbles with the occasional word or phrase, but that’s an occupational hazard of reading the kind of book you yourself write. My one real reservation is that, because of the nature of the plot, for a so-called thriller there is far more talk than action. The past web of deception and misapprehension which is revealed page by page is full of murders and conspiracies, but it is past: quests and discoveries are now a paper trail, climaxes consist of one man telling another why he did something years ago. The form Pears has chosen for his narrative reinforces this effect. The tone of these deliberate accounts – describing events, setting the record straight, explaining what happened – does distance the reader from complete immersion in the events being recounted. It’s intriguing and fashionable that we’re never sure what to believe, but although the end is truly surprising and is told with as near certainty as we’re allowed, this necessary scepticism distances us still further.My other reservation is purely a matter of taste. Three of the four narrators are not conventionally appealing characters, and the world they live in, as they see it, is grim. At times I felt that Pears was succumbing to the modern fictional clichés, which cast the past as nasty, brutish and short, as completely as any Victorian succumbed to the cliché of Merrie Englande. However excellent the writing, and however fascinating the ideas – and in An Instance of the Fingerpost they certainly are – not all readers are going to want to spend that much time in such a world. The last of the four accounts, you might say, redeems this grimness in various ways, and only here I did find truly moving but all too brief moments of love, beauty and transcendance. Maybe that’s how Pears means it to be.
Vintage, 1998, 704 pp., ISBN: 009975181X