, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Review: An Instance of the Fingerpost, by Iain Pears
Berkeley, 1998. 704 pp. $20

As this captivating novel begins, Marco da Cola, a self-described “gentleman of Venice,” offers his account of his visit to England in 1663. Sent by his merchant father to see to business affairs that have gone wrong, da Cola also carries a letter of introduction to notable English scientists, for our Venetian gentleman has interests there too. Accordingly, he travels to Oxford, where he meets Robert Boyle, the famed physicist, among others, and discusses the proper approach to observation and reasoning concerning both accuracy and conformity to God’s laws. Right away, these principles are tested, through an unheard-of medical treatment, a murder, an investigation, and a punishment, in all of which da Cola plays an important role.

Robert Boyle, physicist, chemist, and philosopher, as painted in 1689 (courtesy Science History Institute, Philadelphia, via Wikimedia Commons)

What sounds simple is anything but. These are religious times, dangerous to those who pray or think in unapproved ways; and with Cromwell’s protectorate recently ended, and the Stuarts restored to the throne, suspicion and conspiracy abound. Heed ye these controversies well, gentle reader, for they shape not only what Signor da Cola witnesses, but how others view him, his manuscript, and the events he describes.

An Instance of the Fingerpost is a strongly feminist novel, but by demonstration, not by soapbox. The woman most central to the story possesses a breadth of mind and character surpassing those of anyone else, to which Pears never calls undue attention. Yet how she behaves arouses suspicion, which raises a crucial theme, how men perceive women through the lens of their own weaknesses.

During his sojourn in England, da Cola shows his kind heart, good-natured disposition, ready laugh, and — within the bounds of seventeenth-century attitudes — tolerant outlook. All that makes him a perfect foil for the disagreeable, smug, hidebound, and cruel Englishmen he meets (many of whom are historical figures). His narrative provides an often cheeky commentary, as when he sums up what he sees and judges it freely:

I discovered that, in only a brief space of time, the atmosphere of Oxford has settled on me, rendering me as melancholic as most of its inhabitants. There is something about the place; a dampness which is oppressive to the spirits, which bears down powerfully on the soul. I have for long had a theory about the weather which, if God spares me, I would like to develop one day. I do believe that the weather and grayness of the climate will forever preclude the English for making much of a stir in the world, unless they abandon their island for more sunny climes. Transport them to the Americas or the Indies, and their character is such that they could rule the world; leave them where they are, and they are doomed to sink in lassitude.

However, when da Cola’s narrative breaks off, other witnesses to the same events narrate their view and take great exception to his manuscript. I don’t mean their counterattacks on his character, which confirm their hatred of foreigners, their gloominess, and much else he remarked on. Rather, the Venetian gentleman seems not to have told the truth. The question is why.

The other voices respond to that and much else, recasting the murder by their own lights, as they justify themselves, often with a semblance of truth, but perhaps not. You don’t know whom to believe, or about what. Not only does the narrative framework recall the great Kurosawa film Rashomon, in which a presumably clear-cut criminal act becomes murky when viewed from different perspectives, Pears raises “no — and furthermore” to its most psychologically penetrating form. Just when you think you might grasp how the murder and investigation unfolded, you don’t — though maybe there’s a piece of evidence, viewed differently, that makes sense. And that one piece won’t go away.

Readers of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose will recognize similarities here (as reviewers noted when Fingerpost came out). Crime and its repercussions become inseparable from the way people perceive good and evil, or what it means to think and observe, not to mention how ready they are to detest each other for petty differences in religious doctrine. Like Eco too, Pears renders political, social, and intellectual attitudes with such sureness that you don’t doubt him for a second.

An Instance of the Fingerpost is an enthralling mystery and a chilling exploration of the vicious potential of the human mind.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.