It’s been a long time coming for György Spiró. However much Hungarian writers complain about the isolation forced upon them by their non-Indo-European agglutinative language, the big names have always got through, maybe to a global shrug from the reading public, but they have made it out. And in fact, recently, the Magyar dead have done particularly well: Bánffy, Szabó, Szerb, Márai and Karinthy have found many British fans.
Though he’s better known as a dramatist in Hungary, Spiró’s massive novel Captivity was published there in 2005 to great acclaim. Now published in English (it has probably taken Tim Wilkinson this long to translate it), it follows the wanderings of Uri (a Jew, but a Roman citizen) across the Roman empire, with cameos for Christ, Pontius Pilate and Caligula.
Two major obstacles face a writer wanting to ferret into the Caesars and the start of Christianity: Robert Graves and Life of Brian (oh, and maybe Ben Hur too). Spiró works harder than Graves and seems to have amassed every fact and archaeological detail about the Roman empire from Augustus to Vespasian, but Graves got there first and if you’ve read I, Claudius and Suetonius, Spiró’s portrait of Roman society doesn’t offer much that’s new, apart from being harsher on Claudius.
There are some moments of black humour with slave drivers and others, but perhaps because of the memory of Monty Python, Spiró backs away from full contact with comedy, apart from possibly a line, almost at the end, on page 854: ‘There was no necessity to write a bulky historical work replete with facts.’ This is either a joke or a staggering lack of self-awareness.
For me, the Jewish element of the novel was the most successful. Having a bookish, short-sighted shlemiel as your central character isn’t a bad move with the reading public, and Uri in his travels to Alexandria and Jerusalem gets to see all aspects of the Jews of his era. But as with the Romans, Spiró is relentless in his research (if you ever wondered what a sixth of a zuz is, you’ll find out).
What would have been a great two-line gag about Jewish sailors resorting to throwaway marriages in order to get laid in a Syracuse brothel becomes a three-page discussion about the finer points of Jewish law. Indeed if you thought Malamud, Bellow or Singer were Jewish writers, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Short of the Torah, I can’t imagine a book being more Jewish. If you get to the end you must surely qualify as some sort of honorary rabbi.
Uri ends up very briefly in prison with Christ and the two thieves. Half of me admires Spiró’s tease in flashing the Nazarene and then dumping him, half of me finds it unsatisfying that Christ gets less airtime than a ship’s dog.
You have to admire Spiró’s industry, because not only is Captivity a mighty length, it is also dense. He’s really thought about it. Oddly enough for someone who made his name as a dramatist, he’s quite sparing with dialogue. But compared with many of his artsy Hungarian peers such as Eszterházy, Kraszahorkai and Nádas, he’s practically Dan Brown in his straightforward narrative. Perhaps because of his central European background, Spiró also gives Uri a somewhat Kafkaesque sense of powerlessness and inability to fathom what is going on, as the emperors, kings and alabarchs conspire. And a lot goes on.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £17 Tel: 08430 600033. Tibor Fischer’s novels include The Thought Gang, The Collector Collector and Voyage to the End of the Room.