10. 31. 2005. 15:15

A witness to the 1st century - part two

An interview with György Spiró

Captivity was a conscious emigration into the great events of a great era. Our world here, the world we were socialised into, is a small and shabby world. Being part of a small nation is usually not favourable for great prose and drama.

The strongest, though very problematic love relationship in the novel is that between father and son. Uri regards his firstborn as a spiritual reincarnation of his father, and he is incapable of loving his second-born, because he takes after his mother – and this is how you account for the fact that Marcellus is absorbed by the sect of the Nazarenes (the Christians).

Firstborns – Jews, Greeks and Romans alike – were in a much better position at the time. The rest of the sons were not considered important, and the girls were absolutely not to be reckoned with. Generally speaking, it is not successful firstborns who tend to join movements and sects. Revolutions are made by assistant professors rather than professors.

When Uri attends the meeting of the Nazarenes, headed by Priscilla, a priestess, it seems that you present it in an ironic light.

Uri is surprised why he had such a bad time with these people. These people are not poor; they are well-dressed. There is an interesting book that says that the religion of the Nazarenes was an urban movement, the religion of the well-off. This, by the way, tallies with what modern sociologists of religion say about new religions like that of the Mormons or the Baha’i. I don’t think that this scene is ironic, though it may strike us today as strange, because it is not how we imagine the first Christians. We imagine them as poor, downtrodden slaves.

The structure of Captivity suggests that when Jesus turns up, he simply fits into a ready-made historical mould; that it practically does not matter who he is, because the role is there, waiting for him or whoever would take it.

I don’t think Captivity suggests that. Jesus was probably an exceptional person, and I do not get into characterising him or his sect. I merely show that there was a need for a more deeply spiritual religion than the ones existing at the time. Of course, when there is a role to be taken, it is usually taken by somebody. We always need to adore someone as a God, and the person who fits our needs will be deified. This is apparently part of being human.

Reading Captivity we realise that the horrors committed by the emperors are quite similar to each other, that the characters of Tiberius, Nero, Caligula and Claudius are hardly distinguishable after they have become emperors.

This is what power does to the human being, unfortunately. All the emperors imitated Tiberius’ methods, and I presume that Stalin, who studied history in the seminary, never forgot what he had learnt, even though he had failed his exams. In the first century, every Roman emperor faced the same problems and reacted by using the same techniques – techniques that were available at the time. Some of them were geniuses like Tiberius and Vespasian, some were sly like Caligula, some idiots like Nero, some naive like Vitellius – but they all had to be equal to their role. If they weren’t, they were murdered immediately.

It is one of Uri’s crucial experiences as an adolescent that he witnesses the execution of Seian’s children. Since virgins could not be executed, the executioner rapes Seian’s small daughter so that he could kill her.

I did not invent this; I cannot invent such horrors. This scene is described by Suetonius. The greatest horrors are always produced by real life. I dramatised the scene, of course, and added an element or two to shock the unsuspecting reader, who has just started to read the story.

This is a crucial scene, because it sets the standard: after a certain time, the reader realises that he is becoming more and more numb as the horrors increase.

Yes, Uri himself reflects on this in Alexandria when he understands why he is not shocked by the massacre – because he had experienced it before when the little girl was executed. The reason I didn’t take Uri to Judea at the time of the Jewish War is that massacre on such a scale cannot be described adequately. You can experience the death of one person, but not the death of two million people.

Uri is an outsider in every community. That’s why he is not biased. The seeing-blindness dichotomy is a crucial theme in your novel. We, the readers, see everything through Uri’s eyes.

This was absolutely a conscious choice: the reader should not see what Uri cannot see. Since Uri is short-sighted, he must think and remember in order to see. His almost-blindness forces him into a situation that could be called that of an intellectual, although there were no intellectuals at the time. He is capable of anything and nothing. He starts to walk in various directions, but never goes all the way.

He writes distichs, makes mosaics, even invents an air-pump.

I wanted to create an Everyman, capable of anything that humankind is capable of, a character in whom the reader can love all humankind.

Uri’s blindness is a sign of his chosenness. God created him with bad eyes, because he wanted him to see more deeply. To study the Book. And books.

This is how we usually turn our deficiencies into advantages. This is a healthy reaction. He is not chosen; he only thinks so, because that notion keeps him alive for some time.

In one of your essays, you claim that ’those who have a well-based vision of history will be supported by the historical fact’. In Captivity you write that it was Tiberius who invented state bank financing…

This is actually true. You can look it up in the works of Latin historiographers. Bank financing was invented, because there was a problem to be solved urgently; and since the problem remained, banks remained.

Yes, but the similarity to our age is striking.

This is not my fault. I also mention political analysts – the word did not exist at the time, but the function did. Also insurance fraud – some people claimed that their ships were wrecked; others set their tenement houses on fire. These economic and power structures were the same then as now. It is quite reassuring to get into such details, to see that life on this earth was always the same.

The main character and his family are completely fictitious, while there are lots of minor characters who are not fictitious and about whom we – or, at least, academics – know a lot. This is quite common in this genre: Walter Scott, Stendhal and Tolstoy used the same method, and ever since, many writers have. However, if the reader cannot accept the fictitious main character, the whole edifice collapses. There is also a danger that the fictitious main character brings ulterior notions into the story – the same way Heisenberg claims that we manipulate all physical experiments with our instruments, that we cannot examine the state of things without our interference, and thus we will never know how things are without us. But even if the main character is not fictitious, there is an interference, and it is dubious, because the author was born in a later age. The way to resolve this problem is perhaps to admit that it is all a fairy tale, even if it is based on historical facts. Wyspianski says that we do not know much about history, only the framework of the events, but that is enough for our imagination to fill in the blanks. For some reason, we like fairy tales; we even learn from them. Who knows what the real Ulysses, Patroclus, Hector or Helena, what the real Romeo and Juliet were like? They were probably much plainer than what the artist – happily – made out of them.

In the part of the novel that takes place in Judea, you describe the everyday life of a community and the heroism involved in it. Uri has to live in the henhouse and fight for his daily bread.

It was impossible not to make Captivity a novel about peasant life as well. The work of peasants can never be left out of a novel, because it is the daily basis of our lives. Moreover, it is the peasants, two million of them, who are massacred in the Jewish War. They are the real victims of this war.

The meaning of Uri’s – Uriel’s – name is ’God is my light’. While sifting wheat with the Judean women, Uri reads to them from the book of Henoch, in which there is an archangel called Uriel.

The Book of Henoch was very popular at the time, because it talked about the Messiah who was soon to come. Without this book, the Revelations of St. John or Dante’s works could not have been written.

Do you try to draw a line between being a writer and a private person?

Yes, for some time I have tried to do this consciously. In Hungary, people’s minds are still dominated by Romantic notions of poets and writers. They regard literature as a substitute for religion. In our country, even the anti-prophet becomes a prophet, and I wanted to avoid this fate. People in Hungary tend to think that the writer should be identical with what he is writing about. If you are a writer, you are denied your basic freedom. Represent this or that social group, class, nation, minority, whatever; just don’t be yourself! You are not allowed to play. This is an extremely primitive social realist or fascist idea. And I am quite surprised that it is still alive.

Why do you say so often that being born a Hungarian is a disadvantage? Why is it easier for an English writer?

Today an English writer is in no better situation. He also lives in a small, unimportant country. Today it is only Russians and Americans who do not lack spiritual means. Being born a Hungarian writer after the Versailles Treaty means a narrow existence from the beginning. Nineteenth-century Hungarian writers were born into a different world. This is a big problem, and we tend not to realise it, or when we do, we think it is a political question; whereas, in fact, it is a spiritual question.

Thus, you regard Captivity as successful emigration?

How successful it is remains to be seen. But it was definitely a conscious emigration into the great events of a great era. Our world here, the world we were socialised into, is a small and shabby world. Being part of a small nation is usually not favourable for great prose and drama. Poetry is our strongest. That is where our greatest literary potential lies. I am surprised that readers and critics alike ignore poetry and compel wonderful poets like Parti Nagy or Rakovszky to write novels. Not that their prose is not good; still, it is sad that they cannot live on their poetry alone.

Your drama Chickenhead was translated into Czech, English and German, Soap Opera into English, and both were staged. Your novel The X-es was translated into French. I don’t think that all your books are easily translatable, but Captivity is.

The problem is not translating, but publishing them. Who wants to read a thick novel by an unknown writer from somewhere in the Balkans, which is absolutely uninteresting nowadays politically. If he were thirty, perhaps… It takes ten years to build his image, and twenty more to make it a viable business. He hasn’t got a Jewish identity, and he is not imprisoned – and even if he were, that wouldn’t be such a big deal.

Yet, top lists show that in Hungary lots of people have bought Captivity. Do you attribute this to the marketing strategy of the publisher?

Well, yes, of course. Not to myself, definitely. The readers will decide whether the book is good or not, but they bought it, because the publisher Magveto, invested great energy in the campaign. I am happy, of course, because there is a slight chance that some people might even read it.

This is the second 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

Tags: György Spiró