An interview with György Spiró
György Spiró’s new novel Captivity (Fogság), the Hungarian literary sensation of the year, is a reconstruction of the period from around the death of Christ until the Jewish War. Uri, the protagonist of the novel, is selected to be a member of the delegation that takes the Pesach tax of Roman Jews to Jerusalem. Through his adventures we get an extremely lively picture of contemporary Rome, Jerusalem and Alexandria. – An interview with the author by Erika Csontos.
Did you have any preconceptions when you started working on the novel?
None. I read an enormous quantity of Jesus novels. They are mostly horrendous, and precisely because every author had a preconception. Or, to be more precise, they all had a world view or a faith, and when they came across some facts that seemed to support their faith, they happily declared their research to be over and done with. These novels were mostly written from the point of view of Christianity: how wonderful it is and how it will conquer the world and how it is worth every sacrifice.
You used historical sources: Suetonius, Tacitus and Josephus Flavius.
And Cassius Dio, who is not translated into Hungarian for some reason.
And the philosopher who ardently fought for the reconciliation of Greeks and Jews: Philo of Alexandria.
Philo does not mention Jesus, only Pilate – that Pilate executed prisoners who were not sentenced to death. As a matter of fact, Philo was my contemporary source, because it is known that there was probably something about Jesus in Josephus Flavius, but what is actually there now in his writings was added later.
Who manipulated the text, and why?
Most probably the Christians; their censorship was very strong. The Talmud was also an important source for me, but I used the Mishnah wherever it was possible, because it is more likely to have originated before the destruction of the Second Temple (70 A.C.). I had to take great care not be influenced by later Jewish developments. And I also used archaeological material and historical works published in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Why are the small details of everyday life and the visual reconstruction of inner and outer spaces and buildings so important for you?
Because I was interested in everyday reality. An archaeologist called Leon published a book about Jewish catacombs in 1960, and all the names in Captivity are from the tombstones. Who would have thought – not me, definitely – that Jews gave Greek or Latin rather than Hebrew names to their children at the time. I like Leon, because he is a really good positivist. I need data from which to draw the essence for myself. I like positivists, because they have no preconceptions. I guess they do have a secret preconception, but at least they don’t ignore the facts as blatantly as historians who belong to other schools.
From your book, we get a taste of contemporary Jerusalem, even the Temple. It is as if you had been there in secret.
I have only been in Rome, and quite long ago. But just think of it: only one column of ancient Alexandria has remained intact. And I wanted to present it as if I had walked there myself…
On what basis did you decide whose point of view to take?
There are lots of important points of view, and already many people have thought along the same lines as me. It is difficult to determine, though, what this direction is. Many people have tried to conceive of religion a bit more sensibly than simple ideologues. I realised long ago that Christianity satisfied a real need - that at the time Christianity was born, something was missing from the world, something that other religions were incapable of satisfying. Luckily – and I was quite surprised to realise that – the first century was pretty irreligious. Although there were lots of religions, they were not really spiritual; they were unable to solve people’s problems. People living in that era were rationally religious, Romans, Jews and Greeks alike.
Captivity is almost 800 pages long. Why is it so long-winded?
I planned a 450-page novel. I thought that since world politics was conducted in Rome at the time, the novel would have to take place there. Pilate was too unimportant a figure to represent Rome; I had to take a look at the person who was behind him in Rome. So I thought I would write a tripartite novel: Rome, Jerusalem, Rome. Then I saw that it would not work unless the action was set in everyday life. I did not know yet that I had to take the protagonist to Alexandria.
I have read excellent historical works, but scholars are obsessed by their own subject and fail to see the context. I noticed that, strangely enough, Alexandria does not appear in the story, although Alexandrian Jewry was very strong at the time, and Christianity must have spread there quickly.
Finally the novel came out in four parts.
Yes, because Alexandria had to enter the picture. And then I was in trouble. Four books?! In Europe, the representative form consists of three parts, like the sonata, the triptych, etc. Or the Hegelian dialectic: thesis–antithesis–synthesis. Or the Holy Trinity. This form presupposes progress and redemption. Yet, there are also four-part works, like the mature dramas of Chekhov or Wyspianski and some Russian formalists, geniuses all of them. I have been thinking a lot about this – why some people prefer eternal return and lack of change to progress.
The four parts take forty years altogether.
The novel starts in 35, when Jesus was crucified; and it ends in 74, after the Jewish War. I must say I was quite happy with the number 40. The Bible is full of 40 days and 40 years… And I realised that I needed a protagonist, because the reader wants to clutch on to somebody. In truly great novels – Don Quixote, Svejk, Tom Jones – there is usually a strong central character. It is important for the reader to have an at least somewhat loveable central character.
People are incapable of experiencing the sense of community anymore, their life is not like that. Therefore, they are unable to accept books written in a communal form. They prefer lyrical novels to epics. They experience the outer world as hostile, and if there is an absolute protagonist, they go with him. And they even prefer if the protagonist is the narrator himself who lectures to them. This provides ample room for the lyricisation and the ideologisation of prose. This is generally called postmodern, but it might as well be called sentimentalism. To put it differently, today people cannot read the Iliad – they can perhaps still read the Odyssey – but in their hearts they desire Rousseau in whom they recognise themselves. So I thought I should create a mediocre figure who is sometimes up and sometimes down, like people – the readers – in general. Then I decided to endow him with some of my qualities and deficiencies, so that I could perhaps be able to guess his reactions, even though he experiences things that are foreign to me. I tried to guess, for example, what would have happened if I had been born short-sighted two thousand years ago...
I have counted at least ten possible meanings for the title. Uri becomes a prisoner several times. When he is expelled to a Judean village, he realizes that he cannot escape, because the whole state is a prison. His debt inherited from his father is a prison, his family…
…the Law as a prison. In a memorable scene that takes place during the pogrom in Alexandria, the Jews who have escaped to the cemetery have a debate about whether they can be considered to be in life danger, whether they are entitled to eat unclean food...
His sicknesses, the loss of his teeth, these are all captivities. It was important to present him as a biological being to make him more authentic. Ideological novelists usually create purely spiritual beings. But we are born as flesh and blood creatures and have to struggle with our body all our lives.
The body as a prison.
To be born a human being is captivity. There are no Übermensch-es. As Attila József says, ’...the stars are bars of a prison’. Or Kafka, ’The bars of the prison are within us.’ I don’t know more than they do. But one has to know as much.
In the first few parts you describe the happenings of a few weeks: the Pesach tax is taken to Jerusalem from Rome. The second part, Uri’s exile in Judea, covers three months; the third, the Alexandrian part, covers two years; the last chapter, Rome, a whole decade. As we proceed in time, the number of characters and conflicts grows. Was this a consequence of the nature of the material?
Not really. It starts slowly, then accelerates gradually, and toward the end it becomes extremely fast. In the beginning we witness personal deaths; in the end we have only massacres. Two million people are executed in the Jewish war, and we hardly even shed a tear. But this must be preceded by a slow pace, by personalised deaths.
It was obvious to me that Captivity would eventually have to be a novel of initiation, a novel of adventures. I wanted to start with a naive child and make him a wise man by the end, and I hoped that the reader would proceed together with the protagonist. It must be a youth novel, not in the conventional sense, of course, but rather like Kertész’ Fatelessness. It is a novel of education, but without Rousseau’s limitless egoism. That’s why it had to be so slow in the beginning. I left out a lot. For example, I hardly tell the reader anything about Uri’s thoughts. Since then, I have realised that if I let the reader’s imagination work freely, then he will draw the conclusions for himself and find out how Uri would act... Such reception is active and leaves deeper traces in the reader than if I tell him what the hero thinks and feels. Captivity is also a novel of adventure with a linear structure, and it is also very pictorial. This was a compromise on my part: today one must descend to the most primitive forms and make it as easy as possible for the reader. Actually, Captivity is a soap opera – a powerful genre, as we can see...
Yes, the novel is linear, but it is a great idea that Christ is a minor character, and Uri realizes only toward the end that he had met him by chance in the prison of Jerusalem.
I realised that my protagonist simply had to meet Jesus. I was very scared of the Jesus scene, but when I finished it, I knew I was going to finish the novel. It was actually not my idea that the two thieves and Jesus were together in the prison. My idea was only to put Uri into the prison together with all three of them.
Your description of Jesus is somewhat irreverent. A chubby, fortyish guy – we usually think of him as being 33.
According to the New Testament, Jesus suffered three hours on the cross, and then died. People usually took longer to die on the cross. This means that he was weak and not very young. Scholars also reckon that he was fat.
But you were writing a novel. You could have made him as thin as a pin.
But I didn’t want him to be thin. For me, the important thing was that he should remind Uri of his father. A sensitive reader probably thinks at this point that Uri will become a Christian. He finally doesn’t, even though his morality anticipates that of Christianity throughout. For me, the fact that Jesus is a father figure for him was more important than anything else. This is Uri’s, not Jesus’ novel, after all – Uri’s, for whom fatherhood is problematic.
(to be continued)
This is the first part of a shortened version of an interview by Erika Csontos, published originally in Hungarian on Litera www.litera.hu.
Spiró on Hunlit
Read an excerpt from Captivity in German on Babelmatrix
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