Captivity by György Spiró (tr. Tim Wilkinson). Restless Books. $29.99, 864 pp.
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.
Ottilie Mulzet is a Hungarian translator of poetry and prose, as well as a literary critic. Her most recent translation is Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens by László Krasznahorkai, published earlier this year by Seagull Books.
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