György Spiró is the author of Captivity, an epic novel set in first century Rome written in Hungarian and translated by Tim Wilkinson for Restless Books. György will be blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.
In 1992 I came up with an idea for a novel.
Many people claim that Thomas, the twin, who belonged for a time to Jesus’s sect and in whose name was written, much later, an apocryphal gospel which strangely did not get as far as the crucifixion itself — this Thomas was actually Jesus’s twin brother. It occurred to me that after Jesus’s death the disciples’ grief must have been so overwhelming that one of them, seeing this, decided that they must call back Thomas, who would then pretend to be Jesus and make believe that he had risen from the dead. Thomas played his role well, so the disciples, after some hesitation, recognized Jesus in him and acquiesced. A few weeks later, when Thomas disappeared on Pentecost Day (did he flee? was he killed? I hadn’t quite figured that out yet), they no longer mourned Jesus all that much.
I had already written about thirty pages of the story when I read it over. I was horrified. The sentences, the phrasing, the scenes — everything about it was terrible. I thought I was finished, that my talent had forsaken me. A few months later I thought differently about the whole thing. The basic idea was bad; that’s what made my sentences cockeyed. With a twentieth-century mind and soul it is impossible to apprehend the thought processes of believers who lived two thousand years ago. With rational, sober deliberations, one cannot descend to the depths of the soul. The only honest approach is to leave the story as it was recounted in the gospels and to describe the world around Jesus and his followers. I read many novels about that period, and the authors of those works did not take note of the fact that a nineteenth- or twentieth-century mindset cannot be projected onto an ancient past. With a few exceptions (Bulgakov with The Master and Margarita is a rare example), writers of such novels produced mediocre works.
I realized that despite the enticing original idea (which could have brought in a lot of money—if that were my main goal), I had to admit that I didn’t know enough about the age, so I began to read up on the history of Rome, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. Until then I thought I knew quite a bit about Roman history; after all, in high school I studied Latin, and in class we were quizzed thoroughly on details of Roman history. But it became clear that I picked up as much as the so-called cultured people, which is very little. I knew well that I was totally ignorant of Judean and Alexandrian conditions of that period. What’s more, I discovered after a while that even those unfamiliar with certain areas wrote highly praised works about the Roman Empire.
Nevertheless, I owe a debt of gratitude to many historians, archaeologists, as well as sociologists of religion, for I learned everything from them. Naturally, they are more familiar with individual aspects of the region, but I had to tackle everything, as the plot of my novel encompasses the entire Mediterranean basin. What’s more, I stumbled on connections that eluded scholars. For instance, I learned that Emperor Caligula was not at all a madman, as ancient sources and in their wake historians and writers have maintained; his failure to escape from his killers’ clutches was a very close call.
Everything came easier for me, since I am not a historian who must rely on dug-up fragments of sentences and poetry, but a writer who can freely set his imagination into motion. I learned from the fiasco of the “twin story,” and ever since then I am more suspicious of myself, and am no longer willing to elaborate on alluring but arbitrary ideas.
Translated from the Hungarian by Ivan Sanders.
Born in 1946 in Budapest, award-winning dramatist, novelist, and translator György Spiró teaches at ELTE University of Budapest, where he specializes in Slavic literatures. His novel Captivity is newly available from Restless Books.
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.