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.

Relat­ed Content:

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.

Jesus’s Twin