György Spiró - Equal parts Homeric epic, brilliantly researched Jewish history, and picaresque adventure, Captivity is a dramatic tale of family, fate, and fortitude
György Spiró, Captivity, Trans. by Tim Wilkinson. Restless Books, 2015.
The epic bestseller and winner of the prestigious Aegon Literary Award in Hungary, Captivity is an enthralling and illuminating historical saga set in the time of Jesus about a Roman Jew on a quest to the Holy Land.
A literary sensation in Hungary, György Spiró’s Captivity is both a highly sophisticated historical novel and a gripping page-turner. Set in the tumultuous first century A.D., between the year of Christ’s death and the outbreak of the Jewish War, Captivity recounts the adventures of the feeble-bodied, bookish Uri, a young Roman Jew.
Frustrated with his hapless son, Uri’s father sends the young man to the Holy Land to regain the family’s prestige. In Jerusalem, Uri is imprisoned by Herod and meets two thieves and (perhaps) Jesus before their crucifixion. Later, in cosmopolitan Alexandria, he undergoes a scholarly and sexual awakening—but must also escape a pogrom. Returning to Rome at last, he finds an entirely unexpected inheritance.
Equal parts Homeric epic, brilliantly researched Jewish history, and picaresque adventure, Captivity is a dramatic tale of family, fate, and fortitude. In its weak-yet-valiant hero, fans will be reminded of Robert Graves’ classics of Ancient Rome, I, Claudius and Claudius the God.
"With the novel Captivity, Spiró proves that he is well-versed in both historical and human knowledge. It appears that in our times, it is playfulness that is expected of literary works, rather than the portrayal of realistic questions and conflicts. As if the two, playfulness and seriousness were inconsistent with each other! On the contrary (at least for me) playfulness begins with seriousness. Literature is a serious game. So is Spiró’s novel."—Imre Kertész
"Like the authors of so many great novels, György Spiró sends his hero, Uri, out into the wide world. Uri is a Roman Jew born into a poor family, and the wide world is an overripe civilization—the Roman Empire. Captivity can be read as an adventure novel, a Bildungsroman, a richly detailed portrait of an era, and a historico-philosophical parable. The long series of adventures—in which it is only a tiny episode that Uri is imprisoned together with Jesus and the two thieves—suggest at once the vanity of human endeavors and a passion for life. A masterpiece."—László Márton
“A novel of education and a novel of adventure that brings to life ancient Rome, Alexandria, and Jerusalem with a vividness of detail that is stunning. Spiró’s prose is crisp and colloquial, the kind of prose that aims for precision rather than literary thrills. A serious and sophisticated novel that is also engrossing and highly readable is a rare thing. Captivity is such a novel.”—Ivan Sanders
“Impossibly engrossing from the very first page…. Building on a huge volume of reference material, the novel rings true from both a historical and a literary point of view.”—Magda Ferch
“György Spiró presents a theory in novelistic form about the interwovenness of religion and politics, lays bare the inner workings of power, and gives insight into the art of survival….This book reads easily and avidly like the greatest bestsellers while also going as deep as the greatest thinkers of European philosophy.”—Aegon Literary Award 2006
Thanks to the labour of the indefatigable Tim Wilkinson, this autumn we will finally gain access to an important work by yet another representative of Hungarian letters who has all the chances to become a household name among the readers of literature in translation, just like Nadas, Esterhazy and Krasznahorkai.
Captivity is a vast historical novel dedicated to the period between the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the end of the First Jewish-Roman War. The action primarily takes place in Rome, Jerusalem, and Alexandria, following the trials and tribulations of a Roman Jew called Uri. The protagonist is a physically weak yet intellectually endowed youth whose adventures start when his father arranges for his journey to Judea as part of the delegation delivering the annual ritual tax for the maintenance of the Temple in Jerusalem. In the course of the following years Uri will come of age and gain formidable knowledge and diverse skills that will make him a genuine polymath and a leading intellectual of that epoch. Among the most important formative experiences will be his captivity by Herod’s administrators, encounters with Christ and Pontius Pilate, forced labour in the countryside, and the studies in the famous city of Alexandria. While following the ups and downs of Uri’s destiny the reader will get an extensive and meticulously researched overview of the culture, economy, warfare, politics and everyday life of Ancient Rome and Judea.
The novel has been a tremendous success in Hungary, having gone through more than a dozen editions. The critics lauded its page-turning quality along with the wealth of ideas and the ambitious recreation of historical detail. I highly recommend reading this interview with György Spiró about the novel as well as this summary of his works. It is great that Captivity will reach a wider audience. However, I have to say that just judging by the description, I would have liked to see his other novel translated, The Kingfisher, which sounds totally insane:
Adopting the same sarcastic voice, he has composed a gigantic novel of nearly 800 pages, a dystopia of the present and future ages comparable to the works of Jonathan Swift or Thomas Pynchon. The Kingfisher of the title is, in fact, a woman by the name of Zsonna Bísztő, whose biography, the main body of the book, is being written by a certain Bollog Shonason who lives in the strange country of Talismania (clearly somewhere in America). The story relates how Zsonna, who was born in the Meagerland (Hungary) of our times, is becoming a victim of an international conspiracy in the course of which she is transformed into the prototype of a woman with three vaginas. Moreover, part of her brain is transplanted in the head of a kingfisher, who manages to escape and finishes her life on the remote island of Hölle, becoming in the process Talismania’s first saint: Shona Bisto. The dark and ironic novel teems with a multitude of frightening and also hilarious subplots.
I want to believe that the publication of the tamer Captivity will spark enough interest around the name of this writer to eventually bring forth the English translation of this extravaganza. - theuntranslated.wordpress.com/
Uri, the hero of Spiró's enormous novel, is a Jewish Candide, although the scope of his exploits suggests more of a naive Don Quixote type—a wide-eyed and resilient innocent, faithful to both his family and his religion. His big dream is to travel from his native Rome to Jerusalem, which he does in the course of this episodic epic. Set in the first century A.D., the novel (first published in Hungary in 2005) covers roughly the same period as Robert Graves's classic I, Claudius, but Uri is on the ground with the rabble instead of in the exalted halls of intrigue. Indeed, a good chunk of the story involves Uri and his friends' retelling the exploits of the royals. The pacing is slow but deliberate, evocative and richly detailed. Spiró's elaborate style reflects Uri's acute observation, with the hint of a wink at the reader. Whether he is imprisoned next to Jesus Christ or is conversing with Pontius Pilate or Kainis, his ex-wife, who happens to be a faux empress, Uri remains his earnest self. Much of the novel is dedicated to Uri's everyday struggles, musings on religion, and arguments with friends. Spiró, a Hungarian man of letters, juxtaposes the prosaic and the significant with aplomb and offers a cheeky, unique view of history through the eyes of his modest everyman. A thoroughly impressive literary feat. - Publishers Weekly
Brilliant, picaresque novel of Jewish life in the first century, a bestseller and prizewinner in Spiró’s native Hungary.
Gaius Theodorus, aka Uriel, aka Uri, is a beloved only son—until, that is, it’s revealed that he has trouble seeing, which brings down his father’s bewildered wrath. “Because you don’t want to see!” cries Joseph, not pausing to allow that though myopic, Uri loves books and stories. It might help to have a cockeyed outlook on the world, though, for in the time of Nero and company, the Roman world is upside down. Joseph dispatches young Uri to Jerusalem with the inventive charge of making his fortune there and bringing honor to a family name that needs a little refurbishing. There are two great impulses at work in Spiró’s yarn, the first being a comprehensive sociology of Roman Jewry, the second a grand, seriocomic novel of ideas. Uri, overcoming obstacles and a flaw of birth, makes for a Joseph Campbell–worthy epic hero, though events are always larger than he, and he doesn’t always appreciate their significance until well after the fact—as when, for instance, it dawns on him that he shared a cell with a certain soi-disant Messiah. “Your Anointed hero was a man!” Uri tells a zealous convert. “A man! I was jailed with him, saw him from an arm’s length away!” The translation is sometimes anachronistic and not quite idiomatic, whether Uri is expressing upset that a philosopher has “ripped off” another’s ideas or, chiding his daughters late in life, when he would regularly “tear them off a strip for not getting married.” Still, there’s a lot packed into these pages, including an engagingly complicated portrait of Roman-Jewish relations in the early empire (“We loathe, absolutely loathe your kind, but not to the extent that we too will perish”), a rambunctious tour of ancient philosophies (including a hilarious semi-Mishnaic defense of prostitution), and no end of plain, good shaggy dog humor.
A winning and thoughtful entertainment, somewhere between Lives of the Caesars and The Tin Drum
- Kirkus Reviews
Captivity follows Jewish Roman citizen Gaius Theodorus -- known as Uri -- from when, aged nineteen, he is sent on a delegation to Judae, and then travels on to Alexandria before finally returning to Rome a few years later. It begins close to the time of Christ's death, and then accelerates when Uri has returned to Rome, through Caligula's ascension to the Roman throne, and then the reigns of Claudius and Nero.
The novel centers closely on Uri, and appropriately it begins not in his earlier childhood but when he is uprooted from his family (and his homeland); from then on he is literally individual, and while he will come to have ties -- familial, friendly, and professional -- and settle down in various locales these all prove more or less tenuous, and throughout there is very much a sense of him standing alone.
In focusing on and through Uri, the narrative is also, like Uri, myopic -- aware of the historic changes going on, but seeing those that do not directly touch Uri more as a blur than distinctly. Uri has a good sense of some of what is happening, and he encounters some of the leading figures of the time, but Spiró does not follow too closely in the trend of historical writing that puts protagonists in the thick of everything and has them in close contact with the high and mighty and witness to every momentous decision. So here even an encounter with Christ barely registers at the time.
Similarly, the novel is paced to go along with Uri's maturation: at the beginning everything is new for essentially still-adolescent Uri, and practically every day brings new experiences; here the novel follows his progress in close, painstaking detail. By the time he's returned to Rome a few years later he's mature if not downright jaded; the day-to-day doesn't stand out nearly as much and the narrative proceeds much more quickly, eventually skipping along over months and years at a time. Rome is undergoing dramatic changes during this period, but mature Uri is now able to stand back and consider the big picture, rather than let himself be thrown about by the day to day minutiae, as he was when he first set out. It's an effective narrative technique: Captivity is a very long novel (of about 350,000 words), but pacing it as he does Spiró quite easily holds the reader's attention through to the (surprisingly bitter) end.
In this way, Spiró impressively focuses his historical novel on the local and individual -- as well as specifically the communities that define Uri and often set him apart, his Jewish religion and his Roman citizenship. But in this remarkably thorough and detailed novel Spiró also manages to present a great deal of substantive historical and cultural information -- adroitly too: it rarely feels like simple information-dumping, as instead he weaves even obscure details about (especially Jewish) life in those times into the narrative in a way that doesn't feel forced.
Uri is extremely nearsighted, and a polyglot bookworm. As a Roman citizen he has some privileges and standing, but as he nears adulthood his future is a bit uncertain. His physical limitations aside -- he's been going bald since age sixteen, on top of it all -- he shouldn't have too much to complain about:
(I)t was a distinctly good time to be Jewish in Rome, and not a good time to be a senator or a knight; it was a good time to be poor, and not so good to be rich, because anyone might be condemned, have his fortune taken and be put to death, with any denunciation given credence.
The opportunity that suddenly comes Uri's way is, nevertheless, exceptional -- "Jerusalem ! Home ! Where the Temple is !". Of course, that's also part of the problem: notorious Agrippa had asked Uri's father for a loan -- and when Agrippa asks, it's impossible to say no. Uri and his father know already then that the debt -- because the money for Agrippa has to be borrowed, too; Uri's father doesn't have those kinds of funds -- will be almost impossible to repay over any lifetime, but there's nothing to be done. But the one concession Uri's father wrangles out of Agrippa is to have Uri made a member of the delegation bringing offerings to Jerusalem -- a great experience and opportunity, even though Uri is, of course, regarded with suspicion by those he travels with both for his connection to Agrippa and his suspicious inclusion in this group.
As the group nears its destination there are hints of larger tensions in the air, too:
"This year Pilate is going to Jerusalem earlier than usual," Matthew muttered to himself. "Very early.
There must be some trouble in Judea after all, that suggested.
After their lengthy journey, the delegation has little use for Uri when they get to Judae and cut him loose as soon as they can. Uri winds up incarcerated -- briefly sharing his cell with three prisoners who are unceremoniously led away on the Friday before Passover -- but soon enough winds up dining with Pilate himself, and Herod Antipas. But he already sees the writing in the stars:
I'm dining with a king and a prefect. This is not going to end well.
Uri endures some internal exile in Judae -- one of the few things they can think to do with him -- but it allows him to experience something new again. He bristles some at how he's been treated and asserts more of his individuality, realizing that it's dangerous (and unpleasant) to have to pick sides (or be thought to have picked one or another, as others repeatedly do about him; he can't quite bring himself to simply accept his fate -- that, as someone explains to him: "Whether you're a sleepwalker or an ignorant novice, you still become what people consider you to be, and you can't do anything about that"):
"I don't want to live in any community ! I don't want to know anything about anybody !"
Regardless, he realizes that he is a pawn of sorts -- but has no idea exactly in what game. Still:
He was being kept in Jerusalem, kept in the country, fed and watered as if he were livestock marked for slaughter.
At least he's clever enough that, once he has served his purpose, he gets a favor in return: allowed to leave he manages to arrange it so that his journey home first takes him to the other city of his dreams, Alexandria. There he can pursue some of his scholarly interests, finding in Philo of Alexandria a mentor and benefactor. It's the happiest time in his life, especially once he is admitted to the Gymnasium -- the highest local institution of learning. Yet his myopia still extends beyond simply the physical:
"We're in a time of peace, gymnasiarch, said Uri. "There will be no war during my lifetime."
"You're naïve, my child," he said, almost affectionately. "It's a good thing there are some idiots among your generation."
Indeed, things go south soon enough, first for the Jews of Alexandria. By the time he's ready to leave for Rome Uri is singing a different tune, realizing:
A period of frightful gravity is coming, cheerless, humorless, humdrum... Wars of religions, not empires...
Yet even then Uri still believes Rome won't be too badly touched by these -- and, oh how wrong he is.
The novel accelerates upon Uri's return to Rome. His life suddenly becomes domestic: he has a mother and sister to take care of, and soon a wife -- definitely not of his choosing. A son, Theo, is the light of his life, and he has several more children, but anything resembling domestic bliss is not in the cards.
A new threat appears, the baffling-to-Uri Nazarenes, and he and his family are washed up in the Roman over-reaction to that perceived threat, leading to another period of exile that also comes at considerable personal cost. Eventually things settle back down in Rome, and so can Uri; he is able to pursue some of his interests -- including, desperately, trying to save valuable records, his love of books a one constant he believes he can hold onto until the end; alas, Uri remains a naïf in these sorts of respects to the -- yes, bitter -- end.
The story goes to Nero's death, and beyond, by which time Uri is an old man. The one woman he loved has become empress -- though she admits it's all gone to hell: "I just sham it" -- and even nostalgia ("It would have been nice to grow old together with you", Uri says, imagining what might have been) doesn't stand a chance in the face of brute, hard, cold reality. There are hints of what is to come -- his one-time love is well aware of the Nazarenes, and casually notes: "'It's a simple religion,' she said. 'It will win through.'" -- and all Uri can hope for is to record what he can, to write his own book. But even that .....
Uri is admittedly rather conveniently smart -- book-smart, certainly, if less frequently the: "strategos gone wrong", as he once described himself -- with a talent for languages, but he's nevertheless an impressively convincing character, whose path through these tumultuous times Spiró chronicles thoroughly engagingly. There's lots of knowingness here, yet even in the casual treatment of, for example, Christianity, it's almost never heavy-handed. The historic events are also very well-handled -- in particular the frenzies that bubble up and then subside, and how life is at one moment on razor's edge, and then returns (at least for the survivors) to almost everyday banality.
Captivity is a superior, well-researched historical novel, but history aside it's also simply a vey good story, with a compelling protagonist. - M.A.Orthofer
With Captivity, translated from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson, György Spiró introduces English readers to a visceral new form of epic history. Here mountains of trivia form vivid landscapes and academic minutiae open windows into the soul of a forgotten age. It is a work of fiction, though, and it is hilarious.
Our unlikely Odysseus, half-blind Gaius "Uri" Theodorus, has resigned himself to an unfulfilling life in the “Far Side” of first-century Rome when his stern father unexpectedly entrusts him with the future of their family and the wealth of their community on a dangerous quest to Jerusalem. In the first episode, Uri experiences Candide-esque ups and downs (sharing haute cuisine with Pontius Pilate and a prison cell with a certain rebellious Nazarene) while the reader accomplishes what feels only in retrospect like a course in Jewish history.
Capitivity requires a commitment, not just to its impressive page length—a bookcase trophy with gravitas—but also to a difficult hero who makes all the wrong moves through an infinity of unfortunate events. It is possible to lose track of decisions that cost Uri his fortune, let alone his sandals. The payoff, however, is significant: each trial humanizes a protagonist who, at the center of so many pivotal events (such as the earliest pogrom, in Alexandria, 32 CE), might otherwise slip into allegory. Uri’s experience is less a metaphor for the saga of the Jewish people than a lens through which to experience a piece of it.
Spiró’s serious accomplishment is to challenge the chilling observation, popularly attributed to Stalin, that “one death is a tragedy and one million deaths a statistic” by breathing life into the neglected statistics of a magnificent—and terrifying, brutal—age. His Melvillian digressions into topics as varied as the observation of halakha in Rome, the intricacies of Alexandrian tax code, and the practice of rural Judean carpentry immerse the reader in an authentic experience. Bloody political intrigue also features in Captivity, but Spiró more often chooses the realism of quotidian bureaucratic nonsense.
Goofy and lacking a political agenda, Captivity is nevertheless an intently philosophical book. Where American novels like Ben Hur have attempted to dramatize the period as a Christian morality play, Captivity expresses historical ideas authentically, and explores from contemporary perspectives how Christianity and the First Jewish-Roman War (66 – 77 CE) both arose from the clash of imperialism and monotheism. It is unsurprising that Spiró’s friendliest historical portrait is of the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher and diplomat Philo of Alexandria, who was interested in reconciling Jewish and Greek teachings.
As an award-winning author, Spiró displays predictable creativity, but the real power of Captivity is the ability the extensive historical detail lends the reader to inhabit and empathize with ancient life. It is difficult to imagine a more entertaining way to realize so much data, and it is wonderful that Spiró has managed such an accomplishment. His technique is a welcome innovation for historical fiction in general, and perhaps the drollest scholarly introduction to the first century yet. - Jack Hatchett
György Spiró’s novel Captivity, beautifully rendered into English by Tim Wilkinson, is a work of ambition—almost literally, not only metaphorically, titanic. Undeniably, it is titanic in the sense of the evocation of gargantuan sweep and breadth; and it is no less titanic in its hopes to re-awaken a Latin-Hellenic-Hebraic world at the base of what we now consider the “Global West.”
Indeed, Captivity’s depiction of the classical world is most noteworthy in its viewpoint, taking antiquity at a highly significant remove: the viewpoint of an average Jewish citizen facing the varied spheres of ancient Rome, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and rural Judaea at the beginning of the Common Era. At the same time, the novel itself assumes a similar stance in relation to its new Anglophone readership, as the life’s achievement of a major Hungarian literary talent. Not only has Captivity proven a major success among the Hungarian reading public—going through no fewer than 14 printings of the first edition—but even more importantly, it is the long-awaited capstone to Spiró’s career as a writer. And even more so, it is the mass public success of a Hungarian-Jewish author living through the often grim experience of Hungary in the 20th century (who is, as it happens, a close friend of Imre Kertész, and significantly, the first reviewer, in 1983, to call attention to the importance of Kertész’s Sorstalanság (Fatelessness)).
Thirdly, another aspect of this novel that must be accounted for is its very existence in the genre of historical fiction, all too often set aside as a middlebrow literary idiom. Here, however, our Anglophone suspicions are without foundation. Within Hungary, the historical novel forms a vital and integral part of the literary enterprise, across all ranges of taste and even of political orientation: from 19th-century nationalists up to the oeuvres of radical experimenters such as Péter Esterházy or Péter Nádas, shifting across historical epochs with dizzying narrative pace. At the same time, however, there are many traps and temptations presented by the historical form, from bathetic anachronism to pedantic detail up to an often distasteful enthusiasm for past “golden ages” before an objectionable modernity. How, and to what extent, Spiró manages to avoid these dangers is a factor that any reviewer must well bear in mind.
The book starts with a departure. Uri, the ne’er-do-well son of a merchant Jewish family living in Rome, is sent to Jerusalem as part of an official expedition to present tithes to the Emperor. Physically inept and, above all, near-sighted, Uri appears the classical Roman counterpart to the contemporary nerd. (He spends most of the day hunched up in the corner reading scrolls and studying languages, which will stand him in much good stead later on, although his father remains unimpressed). Poignantly, he cannot determine if his father has simply found an expeditious way of disposing of his hardly successful offspring, or if the planned trip is but a manifestation of fatherly love. Ultimately, Uri will end up arrested at the city walls of Jerusalem; then, when it is discovered he actually is a Roman citizen, sent to Judaea to work in a farming family from where he is once again summoned to Jerusalem and is mistaken for one of Agrippa’s couriers. Yet even earlier there arrives the moment of Uri’s sharing of a prison cell with an unnamed individual who, we later discover, is Jesus Christ: a permanently kvetching, overweight, middle-aged figure complaining about the usurers. Once in Alexandria, Uri makes the acquaintance of Philo, among others, and enrols in a gymnasium—and then finally he is sent back to Rome, in the hope of reconciling with his father.
Hungarian critics have rightly placed this novel within the well-known Hungarian genre of the “father novel,” which has particularly flourished since the end of communism. The “father novels”—thus far all written by men, it must be noted—have largely borne the task of reckoning with the father as emblem of society, of a person inextricably implicated in the previous regime, whether as collaborator or otherwise. The “previous regime” refers to late communism, presided over by János Kádár, General Secretary of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party from 1956 to 1988. The figure of the father in Captivity, is, however, largely defined by his absence, both physical and emotional: Uri ends up encountering a series of ersatz fathers, some of them well-known historical figures such as the above-mentioned Philo. Throughout the novel Uri conducts an imaginary inner monologue, not only with his absent father but with the Heavenly Father; although not much of a believer, Uri is scrupulous about following Jewish rites, and his ironic internal theological speculations form an erudite commentary throughout the book:
One has to speak to God, Uri supposed, in a language that has no sense; maybe He understood that. The Lord was hardly going to fool around with meaningful words; He had too many things to worry about, what with all existing worlds being entrusted to Him, not just our earthly world...
Above all, the narrative of Captivity is driven by its relentless curiosity about the details of everyday life in the ancient world, equally evidenced by the prodigious research conducted by Spiró prior to writing. (This is described in a thin volume, issued on the occasion of Spiró’s 60th birthday, entitled Captivity: Notes in the Margin [Fogság: Széljegyzetek]). Uri, critic György Vári notes, is a namesake for the author himself, György, or—as the nickname goes—Gy[Uri]. Uri, in Hebrew, means, “my Light,” whereas the full name, Uriel, would include the syllable “El”— for God. God is missing from Uri’s name and from the narrative, wistfully evoked and yet never present. Uri does not deny the existence of God; although he interminably discourses with Him, any sort of religious fervor is conspicuously lacking. In the midst of a procession to Jerusalem to mark Passover, Spiró writes: “These people were enthusiastic. They were marching along, going up to the Temple in Jerusalem! . . . Uri was not boundlessly glad to be making his way to Jerusalem with his painful leg and throbbing back.” He continues:
Uri was assailed by an uncomfortable feeling of being unable to truly rejoice. As if he were not a Jew, though he had been born one of the chosen people. It was a sin to be unable to rejoice sufficiently at this, but he felt that God had inflicted this sin as a diversion: he had become, so he felt, the eye of the Almighty, who was all-seeing. With his poor eyes, to report to Him. So that he might be a spy for the Messiah, who all at once would appear, praying, supplicating, singing to himself softly. . . . It may be that He does not see what I see, but my thoughts reach up to Him.
Observation ranked ahead of piety: this passage makes it altogether clear that the protagonist, identified with the all-observing author, is no less of a conduit for the novel’s task of transmitting the resurrection of the ancient world. Uri remains a cipher, a lens through which the extraordinary panorama of life in the civilizational flux of the Classical Mediterranean is refracted to those who can see—whether the Old Testament God or the contemporary reader.
In addition, his near-sightedness—well before the era of eyeglasses, although Uri intuits this invention along with many others along the way—is not just a physical disability but first and foremost a narrative strategy. In many senses it resembles the deliberate perspectivalism, the stress on obscurity and distortion, of the well-known school of historical writing known as microstoria, as described in the books and essays of Carlo Ginzburg. Uri’s identity as a Jew in ancient Roman society automatically guarantees that the viewpoint he conveys will come from the margins. Spiró is not concerned with the upper crust of Roman society, and the descriptions of street life, whether in Rome or Alexandria, are vivid and captivating, particularly in Tim Wilkinson’s fluid English prose. (In many respects, the cities in the book are characters of equal status to the human figures.) Uri’s Zelig-like adaptability ensures that he will become a mirror for the expectation of others and their machinations: he is usually mistaken for somebody else, meaning that he is sent somewhere, or made to do something unexpected, unleashing the opportunity of yet another flood of anthropologically precise descriptive passages. (At times, it is Uri’s fellow travellers and interlocutors who turn out to be experts in such matters as, for example, the Roman viaducts, latifundia, the arrangement of quick-lived “brothel marriages” for Jewish sailors, mosaic laying, and countless other topics).
Uri is the eternal outsider, regarded with suspicion: there is more than a bit of the Kafkaesque as he tries to subtly discern the potential motives of those around him. And not without reason: more than once he is delivered into imprisonment or near death. The narrative stresses absolute contingency and cynicism above all: although Uri often manifests a kind of mid-twentieth century Atlantic “can-do” attitude, his most cherished desires are viciously crushed in a manner reminiscent of the well-known proverb: “We make plans and God laughs.” Even here, however, curiosity is the defining, perhaps the only redemptive impulse: Uri’s beloved son Theo is now a eunuch, but at least Uri can finally ask him about the presence (or absence) of sexual sensation in his genitals.
More than one reviewer, Hungarian or otherwise, has mentioned that Spiró invites us to survey this vast panorama of intricate historical detail with contemporary eyes. On the one hand, the narrative constantly reminds us that “the firmament was different here, so too were the spirits with which man was surrounded”; on the other, we see sure reflections of ourselves: “Matthew advised Simon the Magus to invest his money in land; it was cheap now but prices were sure to rise.” The style of the book—mainly comprised of brief, pithy sentences—reinforces this impression, both in the original Hungarian and in English translation: in this respect, Tim Wilkinson’s use of contemporary colloquial English expressions mirrors the use of slang in the original perfectly.
Nowhere is this parallel referencing as potent as in the long scene that depicts the Alexandria pogrom. Based on an actual historical event that took place in 38 CE, it would also appear to be the first instance of the creation of a Jewish ghetto in the Common Era. Spiró makes the parallels with 20th century history unbearably clear:
That night a few stole back, reporting that at first the Greeks in the marketplaces had accepted their money and had given them something to eat in return, but then the mob had attacked, slaughtering many women and children, while elderly people had been bound and taken away. Once again fires were lit and anyone the Greek writers caught with smoked to death.
Two of them had seen a burned-out synagogue; there were corpses of men littering the ground in front, their heads and genitals cut off. They may well have resisted when the Greeks attacked the house of prayer.
In the Sector there was chanting of psalms and prayers.
And even in less drastic matters, we find echoes of the world that surrounds us today being projected back into the Roman milieu. When one character airs the well-worn stereotype of the “backwardness of the East,” Uri immediately challenges his “Orientalism”:
“Sure,” Plotius retorted angrily, “but those [the Roman aqueducts] were not built in the lethargic and imprecise East!”
A devil got into Uri:
“The pyramids are said to be incredibly precise in their construction. Doesn’t Egypt count as the East?”
The narration takes a great deal of its delight from anachronisms such as these (even leaving aside, if with some regret, the temptation of recalling a suspiciously similar dialogue in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian). And why should it not, since this is a novel, and not a work of historical scholarship? Uri is forward-looking and quick-witted in every way—almost to the point of straining the reader’s incredulity—although his sexual politics remain very firmly rooted in antiquity. If the author could have provided Uri with an opportunity to be as anticipatory as he is in other matters (predicting the rise of Christianity, among other things), he chose not to. With the exception of one character, the Emperor Vespasian’s mistress Caenis (her own brilliance ruined by corruption, although that can be said of just about every character in the book), every single female protagonist is, quite simply, a morally degenerate whore or a repugnant hag. One of the very few scenes where woman are shown at all in a positive light is the description of Uri’s sexual initiation at the baths of Alexandria:
“Shush!” Said the woman who was stroking, “you’ll scare the neighbours!”
The other woman took Uri’s penis from her mouth.
“Don’t tug, I implore you,” she said. “I might bite it off.”
“Don’t do that,” Uri said faintly, without much conviction.
“Still a virgin, are you?” the stroker asked in surprise.
Uri groaned that he was, and please don’t stop now, he prayed silently to himself.
“A tool this big, and still a virgin?” the stroker exclaimed indignantly. “What can you be thinking? You should be ashamed of yourself!”
. . . That day Uri lost his virginity six times over, one after the other, and after the sixth time even the women were satisfied with him.
This episode allows Uri to finally form an opinion as to the female sex: “So that was what women knew about,” he concludes with satisfaction.
The author himself comments on this aspect of Captivity: Notes in the Margins, stating: “I am not authorized to falsify the sociological truth of a given era,” adding as well, “Otherwise, I am amazed at the fact that people keep on raising the issue of the ‘woman question’ [in the book.]” It may well be true, as Spiró notes, that “a woman fetched only half as much as a man in the slave market” in those times. The book is characterized by elaborate fictionalizations of aspects of life in antiquity, some of which can never be established with the apodeictic certainty of the professional historian. What is conspicuous in Spiró’s portrayal of the absolute oppression of women is that we see the consequences of their oppression—they are stupid, they are ignorant, they are malignant and despised—and yet we don’t really see what made them that way, and there is no humanity whatsoever behind their animal-like survival tactics. The ironic, playful, or even traumatic anachronisms—as in the description of the Alexandria pogrom— creating a temporal palimpsest in the rest of the book, are suddenly utterly absent (unless the “modernity” being summoned here is actually that of the “mid-century misogynists,” to use Emily Gould’s phrase). There is, admittedly, an ugliness to the portrayal of the women in Captivity; the question remains as to how much the reader can unknow what is known— something Spiró clearly does not demand of his readers otherwise.
Born in 1946 in Budapest, award-winning dramatist, novelist, and translator György Spiró has earned a reputation as one of postwar Hungary’s most prominent and prolific literary figures. He teaches at ELTE University of Budapest, where he specializes in Slavic literatures.