08. 18. 2006. 14:04

An author with issues

György Spiró talks to János Háy at the Sziget Festival

“Muslims are the Jews of our time,” Spiró stated, and a wake of controversy followed his analogy of the peoples and processes of two remote historical periods. The theme of exploitation and manipulation keeps popping up as we navigate through some rough timespace terrain.

Szellemvasút (Haunted Railroad) Tent, Sziget Festival, Budapest, August 13th

It is a sunny Sunday afternoon. A festive crowd is entertained by bands playing on the main stage as teatime draws near. At a less central location, a smaller, but no less expectant crowd gives a warm welcome to two figures gracing the stage. Author and poet János Háy introduces his guest, fellow writer György Spiró, whose latest novel Captivity (see review on HLO) had garnered great critical and public acclaim. The novel is set in historical Rome, in the first century A.D. and follows the travels of the protagonist, a young Jew named Uri. The novel deals with a massive amount of background data on a grand scale, sketching an era’s political and spiritual clime through the individual’s encounters with history – it is an epic book in every sense.

Apparently, people have come to know Spiró primarily as the author of this novel - which is, in fact, his fifth, and as he affirms, a prequel to complete a trilogy with his previous two novels, A jövevény (The Newcomer) and A jégmadár (The Kingfisher). A revised version of The Newcomer is due to be published in the near future. Now, however, he speaks about the follow-up to Captivity and takes us on an odyssey of issues connected to it.

Spiró talks. He has been travelling much, visiting locations for his novel, most notably in Jerusalem - leaving off attempts to shoot documentary footage, but making extraordinary findings, nonetheless. He says his visits confirmed his sources extensively, with certain buildings and topography standing neatly in the exact spot where they 'should' be. Instead of getting lost in the scenery, however, Spiró moves confidently through a jungle of controversial issues, modern-day repercussions of globalisation as reflected in his conceptual portrayal of the Roman Empire. Spiró’s (and Uri’s) Rome is the first globalised, multicultural community in history, and analogies and parallells are both numerous and thought-provoking.

“Muslims are the Jews of our time,” Spiró stated, and a wake of controversy followed his analogy of the peoples and processes of two remote historical periods. He opposes the economic elite’s globalisation and nationalism – the former as an exploitative concept with its strength in unity, the latter an ideology inherently dividing the exploited losers. The theme of exploitation and manipulation keeps popping up as we navigate through some rough timespace terrain. Spiró expressly condemns the British originated Zionism that led to the formation of present-day Israel, as a notion adopted by the United States for establishing its Eastern line of defense. He talks of empire-building, of powers recognizing spontaneous political processes and using them to weaken their rivals. Wars, victories and their manipulative nature are pointed out and compared to the present day. According to Spiró, America is pushing Islam into present-day Europe, supporting a war in Bosnia, so with Albania and Turkey there are now three Islamic states in Europe. Religious rivalries between Judaism and Christianity in Antiquity are thus placed in an analogy with  present-day Western and Islamic trends. Spiró speculates on how Jews and Christians were united in political Christianity and pacified, as opposed to a possible upcoming Christian–Islamic transitive faith, which he holds unlikely to emerge. The question remains: will Islam adapt to become palatable to Western society, like Christianity had to Judaism?

Through these glimpses, a vision unfolds of the cyclical lifespans of entropic political development spanning hundreds of years. So, in the light of the notion of a present-day Western civilization, are we a post-(Atlantic) Empire as the Romans were after their Empire fell?  According to Spiró’s view, no unified Christian Europe ever existed. Various old ideologies, such as empirism and slavery, are recycled throughout history and to this day. More questions arise. Is the idea of a European Union an unworkable concept? What about Europe’s cultural unity?

Literature and language are also elaborated on by Spiró as competitive forces. The theme of "switching language" brings forth examples - such as Joseph Conrad, the Polish writer better known for his English works; or in Hungarian literature, German-born Gáspár Heltai or the Croatian Zrínyi family. The artificially single-language culture, such as Hungarian, is opposed to the bi- and multilingual tradition in other European countries; meanwhile, English is becoming a second mother-tongue, as Latin had once been. Still, which English is it one should use to write in? The language of Shakespeare, or that of his translations into American? Spiró sees the unification of the English language among the chief roles of globalized media.

The language of Captivity is markedly different from earlier novels, and Spiró now sees his 1990 novel, The Newcomer, as being “too post-modern”, encompassing and juxtaposing incompatible themes. He has scrapped the neologising and archaic word usage, as well as the “blockish” structure, deciding, in his words, “to put the reader’s enjoyment before that of the writer”. As if to drive the point home, at Háy’s request, he concludes the talk by reading a gripping novel excerpt before releasing us, his captive audience.

Dániel Dányi

Previously on HLO:
Interview with Spiró - Part One and Two

On János Háy's dramas: a review; excerpt from a drama; a short story

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