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Interesting times

28 September 2012

Alexander Lucie-Smith enjoys a novel of the Byzantine era


Andrew Chapman
Pilrig Publishing £9.99

IKON is a picaresque novel, set in the closing years of the Byzantine Empire. Our young hero is Ioánnis, a fisherman on an island where St John the Evangelist spent his last days. Ioánnis's youth, spent learning philosophy with the village priest and getting to know the lovely Anna, is rudely interrupted, and he then embarks on a long odyssey, which takes him to Lebanon, Syria, Anatolia, Constantinople, and Italy.

Along the way, he witnesses several key events, such as the Councils of Ferrara and Florence, and the fall of Constantinople to the Turks. Several historical personages make fleeting appearances, such as the Sultan Mehmet and the Patriarch Gennadios.

Apart from being a picaresque novel, following one man's life and adventures, the novel also represents a spiritual journey. Ioánnis is on a voyage of discovery: this partly involves love and sex, but it also involves religion. His first teacher is, by the standards of the 15th century, something of a heretic, and the novel gradually unfolds the  supposed truth that Islam and Orthodoxy share a great deal, while at the same time accusing the Western Christians of being power-hungry control freaks.

This, of course, does have some historical basis, as Gennadios seemingly preferred to live under the Turks than to be reconciled with Rome; but the closing vision, which suggests that God is an absent deity, is one that all theists, and most students of history, will reject as implausible.

Nevertheless, the journey to this end point is certainly an interesting and entertaining one, and, if it is the job of a novel to do this - as well as to get the reader to think - then this book succeeds.

Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith is the author of Narrative Theology and Moral Theology (Ashgate, 2007).

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