Captivity, a sprawling epic about Jews, Greeks and Romans in the first century A.D., is the first novel by the noted Hungarian writer György Spiró to be published in English. Intensively researched, it follows the travels and peripatetic career of a myopic, bookish Jew who bears the Roman name Gaius Theodorus but is known to his Jewish compatriots as Uri. Despite humble origins, Uri travels as a young man to great cities of the ancient world and lives through adventures thrilling and horrible that throw light on what life was like in great cities and in the countryside two thousand years ago.
Raised in Rome’s Jewish section by a hardworking trader father and a nonentity of a mother, nearsighted Uri doesn’t seem suited for any available career, as corrective lenses are many centuries in the future. Since reading and writing are just about all he can do, he spends his youth squirreled away in a tiny alcove studying every scroll he can get his hands on – history, philosophy, science, religious texts. His adventures begin with his mysterious selection as part of the Roman Jewish community’s annual delegation bringing the community’s collected annual donation to the Second Temple (which hasn’t yet been destroyed) in Jerusalem, the spiritual center of Jewish life.
The book’s major strengths are its vast scope and its depictions of the nitty-gritty of daily life. Spiró maneuvers Uri through encounters with history-making individuals and events in ancient Rome, Judea, and Alexandria. Emperors and prefects, generals and priests, Jesus and Pilate, eunuchs and prostitutes, bureaucrats, laborers, slaves, soldiers, artisans – all make appearances. It’s an old trick, depicting history through the experiences of a fictional nobody who just happens to be present at history’s pivotal moments. But Spiró uses it judiciously; only in the final section, when Uri’s travels are over and he has returned to Rome, does his story start to feel overly contrived at times.
Rooting the tale in believability is its close-up gaze on the tiny dirty details of life in a highly cultured but severely pre-industrialized world. (Not coincidentally, close-up is the only way Uri can see anything clearly.) Digestive problems, currency calculations, slavery, penury, science and astrology, athletics, ghettoization, religious practice, ethnic cleansing, everyday violence, painting materials, taxes, transportation – Spiró weaves a tremendous amount of research into his dense fiction. The payoff is a deep immersion for the reader. Episodic as it was, I never wanted to put the book aside.
Captivity is among other things a study of religious belief and practice in the first century A.D. Sea captains pray to the Persian deity Mithras. Egyptian gods merge with Roman. Thousands of animals are sacrificed at the Temple in Jerusalem, and which order of priests gets to eat the remains is a matter of custom. Distinctions among Jewish Levites, Cohanim, and regular folk really matter, not to mention those among Judeans and Samaritans, Pharisees and Essenes, and the Jews of Jerusalem, Rome, Parthia and so on.
Roman Jews, like the priests of Jerusalem, did not believe in a Hereafter or the immortality of souls or the transmigration into a new body, yet master Jehuda and other masters believed in these things. They still belonged to one religion, however, because they made sacrificial offerings to the Temple. But was anyone who did not make such sacrifices a Jew at all? Was where one paid taxes a criterion of Jewishness? The Jews of Parthia who had stayed in Babylon paid no dues, or like the Roman Jews send one half a shekel in taxes, yet they were still Jews. What did they believe in?
Nazarenes, the believers in Jesus’s resurrection, whose descendants will be called Christians, are still seen as but a troublesome sect among the Jews. Near the end of the book, Uri’s young son who has become a convert describes Nazarene rites, and Uri notes the differences:
Uri nodded. Holy water was used by the Greeks in their rites; the Jews had nothing equivalent, and it was forbidden for anyone who was not born a Cohen to utter the priestly blessing. This was some hybrid of Greek and Jewish religious notions in much the same way as in Alexandria [the deity] Serapis was a blend of Greek and Egyptian traditions.
Spiró is wonderful at depicting the flowing, overlapping nature of religious and other traditions two thousand years ago. To read his book is to gain a deep perspective into human nature and the roots of much of today’s Western civilization. Passionate and academic, overflowing with detail, thoroughly engrossing, it’s a powerful, important work.
Tim Wilkinson, a past PEN/Book of the Month Club Translation Prize winner, has done a great service to modern literature by tackling this behemoth of a novel. Sadly, Wilkinson and Spiró have not been served well by the editing – or (I’m tempted to say) the lack of it. The text is riddled with errors – extra words, sentence structure failures, typos – that a practiced editorial eye should have corrected. Their abundance is shocking in such a major work of literature. I hope a subsequent edition will be edited properly.