Earlier this week, György Spiró shared how the mysterious iidentity of St. Thomas led him to write Captivity. György will be blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.
One day we walked into an Asian-Caribbean restaurant on West 66th Street, not far from Broadway. We had already ordered when four New York mailmen in uniform sat down at a table next to us. They were robust, loud, and cheerful. One of them spread out their next week’s schedule, and without even glancing at the menu, they ordered as only regulars can. I was hit by a sudden inspiration and turned to my sweetheart: “I’ve found the medium for my novel! It’s them.”
At that point I had already been collecting material about the first century CE for ten years, and had no idea in what form I would put it all into writing. At one point I managed to sketch out an ambitious epic drama set in many different locations. I even worked out a couple of scenes in my head. The various documents and books kept piling up; I diligently copied rare materials ordered from abroad, but the murkiness and uncertainty kept growing. Yet, for all that, it seemed ever more likely that such vast material can only be treated in prose.
It was in that Manhattan restaurant in April of 2002 that I decided that depicting everyday life two thousand years ago was the right thing to do. I never thought I’d have to start collecting material from scratch, and reexamine and rewrite everything from a new perspective. Writers like to reorchestrate high-toned politics, or pious spirits, or dominant ideologies; preoccupation with everyday life strikes them as excessively fastidious tinkering, although it is within the quotidian that all the secrets of existence are concealed.
Those living their everyday lives two thousand years ago did not know that they were part of an enormous revolution. And I, the storyteller, did not necessarily have to know either. The people then had no inkling that a tiny Jewish sect would conquer the world in the next three hundred years, though looking back, I can’t think of a greater and more fundamental revolution. This kind of unawareness is characteristic of every generation. We ourselves don’t really know what kind of world we live in. Later generations will know more, but by then we will not be in on it. We are sitting in a restaurant, order in a hurry, our outlook extending to next week’s schedules, and that is as it should be, for we live in the here and now, and nothing could be more important than these trifles. We are cheerful much more often than we should allow ourselves to be, but that, too, is as it should be.
Of course, I didn’t know yet that my easygoing postmen would not decide by themselves what sort of person the hero of the novel should be. It took half a year of work to determine that the Jewish delegation delivering a large sum of offering money from Rome to Jerusalem ought to be in the forefront; and a few more months until I settled on one member of the delegation to focus on. But it was the sight of the cheerful New York mailmen that helped me take the decisive step.
We left the restaurant. I cast a glance at the other side of the street, and saw that on the second floor a restaurateur named Spiro was advertising himself. If I were superstitious, I would have considered it a sign from heaven that we did not go there for lunch.
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.