Györ­gy Spiró; Tim Wilkin­son, trans.
  • Review
By – November 2, 2015

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 (6677 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.

Relat­ed Content:

Vis­it­ing Scribe

Jesus’s Twin

Jack Hatch­ett is a soft­ware prod­uct man­ag­er with a BA in Eng­lish from Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty and a Man­hat­tan apart­ment stuffed with books he claims to have read. As a child actor he played a rab­bi along­side author Joshua Safran’s groom in the award-win­ning short film Minute Mat­ri­mo­ny; as an adult he pro­duces award-win­ning smart­phone apps for retail com­pa­nies and rappers.

Discussion Questions