06. 13. 2006. 14:06

The Lord’s spy

György Spiró: Captivity

A godless book. No one looks after Spiró’s hero, the short-sighted, ugly and scrawny Uri. No one looks after the world, either – even though the period in which Captivity is set, the first century C.E., abounds in deities.

Uri does not even have the dilemma of choice, since, being a Jew, he is a member of the Roman Jewish diaspora. His introverted and narrow life is suddenly blown open when, for some mysterious reason, he is chosen as a member of the annual delegation going to Jerusalem.

An adventurous journey is about to begin. Uri gets to Jerusalem, is imprisoned, then settles in a small village in Galilee, subsequently spending a longer period in the aristocratic circles of Alexandria, the free-thinking metropolis, where he later on witnesses the pogroms against the Jews of Alexandria. The book may, of course, be read as an adventure story; but doing so, the reader will eventually become confused. Deserving a better lot, the good-for-nothing lad of the fairy tale travels to every place of significance in the contemporary world, experiencing and learning a lot; but upon his return to Rome, the rules of the adventure story are overturned, and the story turns out not to have a triumphant ending. Instead of the trials and tribulations of young Uri, we come face to face with his whole life – with captivity, the escape from which is uncertain.

Religious matters


The same question in Uri’s own words is, “How exactly did the Lord mean that?” Uri’s instinctive thirst for knowledge and his curiosity are mixed with a kind of disenchanted enlightenment. Before the journey, he seems to have greater ambitions. “After all, he does nothing else with his life but let God know of his existence. Perhaps one day the Lord will peep into that niche.” The bitter experiences gained through his adventures disprove this wish of his. The Lord does not show an interest in the world, let alone in Uri’s life. Mind you, Uri himself does not show great interest in his own life; he accepts the good and bad turns of his fate with the calm of a stoic, and each new situation fills him mostly with curiosity. He turns to other faiths with the same neutral, enlightened curiosity and finds that his own religion is full of questions. On top of that, he is capable of laughing wholeheartedly at stupid baseness all along, even when his life is drawing to an end. When his son Marcellus, a convert to Christianity, betrays his co-religionists, thus dooming them to death on the cross, Uri is not outraged. “‘I still have a lot to learn,’ he thought and laughed. He kept chuckling to himself for a long time, unable to stop.”

Gradually increasing throughout the plot, Uri’s scepticism depicts for us a truly modern character. If we add to this unbiased outlook the fact that Spiró’s novel is packed with expressions from contemporary slang – with the narrator sometimes making comments to the reader (“it was stock exchange, though, back then, they didn’t know that was the name”) – it becomes obvious that Captivity aims not at the contemporary depiction of the period in question, but offers the reader a look back in hindsight from where we stand today. Moreover, Spiró presents a magnificent panorama of the first century. The long, detailed, no-rush descriptions of places and towns, as well as the depiction of the culture(s) of everyday life, make Captivity a truly classic grand novel and captivating reading. Also, while the book’s language may seem simple, transparent or, what is more, even unproblematic in our age of competing cunning linguistic games, it would be a mistake to put down the voice of a literary work to language use alone. The traditional story-telling dynamic of Captivity lasts through to the end, but at a certain point the reader cannot but notice having arrived at questions far more uncomfortable than might be expected from an adventure story.

Everything is politics


Nothing could be more typical of the deep anthropological pessimism of Captivity than the fact that the context of the whole world in the book is political. Everything is determined by a complicated network of power games and interests. Even religious ideologies cannot provide a way out of this system. It is no surprise that Spiró makes use not only of contemporary historical sources, but also relies to a great extent on the latest findings of historical biblical criticism. The picture of the Jewish and Judeo-Christian world that thus emerges is by no means more positive than the story of the Roman Empire, well known as a series of bloody showdowns.

There is no monolithic Jewry at the time of the novel; instead, there exist several separated Jewish worlds in parallel. The village paupers with their rough sense of humour, the Roman diaspora, the merchants at sea, the Alexandrian elite and the Jews of Jerusalem are all light years away from each other. The tie binding them all together ought to be the Promise and the Law, but even jurisdiction is not uniform in different parts of the world. “The Lord has given the Jews laws with holes in them,” Uri notes. Everyone may fill these holes in accordance with their own interests, circumventing the letter of the law. The self-image of oppression is matched with a hatred for Rome, even though it is not Roman law, but their own social structures that account for the poverty of the Galilean peasants. One example is the extremely corrupt and mob-like priestly system in Judea, whose regular income is the sale of animals offered for sacrifice by first having the animal’s leg broken, thereby deeming it impure and making it possible to sell. “This is how the whole of Jerusalem could drown in meat while peasants were starving everywhere.”

During Vespasian’s war, “more Jews were killed by Jews than by Romans.” The altar of the Temple is blown into pieces by Jewish catapults. The prisoners taken to Rome split into factions, and the civil war continues among them even in captivity. The situation is similar in the case of the pogrom in Alexandria: the cosmopolitan-liberal dream, the dream of an enlightened metropolis, dissolves into nothing; and while the Jewish population is massacred by the Greek, the financial and intellectual leaders of Alexandrian Jewry flee the city. Yet, the most appalling of all the images is when the group of people running away from anti-Semitic violence try to decide which way to go, and the discussion turns into a fierce fight in no time. “The refugees were arguing full of hate.” Later on, the Alexandrian Jewish delegation arriving in Rome turns out to be financed by the Greek. While the streets are filled with raging frenzy and Roman Jews have the Alexandrian refugees thrown out of town, both elites are fully aware of their mutual interests.

Uri’s response is the slow and quiet renouncement of his religion. The divergent concept of Jewry (“the followers of all these various religions are only called Jews out of laziness”) is kept together solely by minority existence. “The Lord may have created us all outlaws – this is our natural state.” Apollos, the schoolmate in Alexandria, starts from a similar opinion (“Judaism has to be stopped”), but comes to a different conclusion. We may encounter him as Apollos the Corinthian in the Book of Acts.

The messianic idea turns into a political concept spreading beyond the scope of Judaism. The political background of the psychological success of the rapidly growing Nazarene sect – the Christians – is the pacifism of “the cowardly Greek and the cowardly Jews”. At the same time, Uri clearly sees that the new faith feeds from the old ideology, “a mixture of Greek and Jewish religious notions”. In the world of Captivity, Christianity is “the fury of losers”. Following the great fire in Rome (not the work of Nero, but an accident), Christians provoke pogroms by claiming the catastrophe to be God’s glorious punishment. Uri’s son Marcellus, a Nazarene convert, is “the idea of all-human stupidity” – hence, Uri’s conclusion that every second-born is a suitable soul for this sect.

Lack of love, resentment and slave morality – it is not difficult to recognise Nietzsche’s evil and ironic voice. If the new faith is a scandal for the Jews and a laughing stock for the Greek, Uri in his declining years tends to sympathise with the latter. It is upon his arrival in Jerusalem that the thought of having been sent by God to act as his spy occurs to him. “He has become the eye of the Omnipotent. One who can see. Even with his weak eyes. To report to him. To be his Anointed spy.” Uri’s nearsighted gaze is in fact a fixing look – not judging, but looking and laughing.

Uri is tempted to sell himself as a slave twice in his life, thereby running away from the “overwhelming darkness of looming liberty” – like the Nazarenes. At the same time, being imprisoned in Jerusalem and separated from the delegation is for him the moment his adulthood begins. Captivity is clearly the key concept of Uri’s existence – stepping out of the safe prison of the faith that upholds him, making a new covenant – because, let us take notice, regardless of harsh religious critique in either direction, Uri’s fate is a repetition of the Christian turn.

The Lord’s spy


The nearsighted youngster is squeezed into the Jerusalem delegation by his father, as far as the boy can see, only to get rid of him. Wherever his journey takes him, Uri feels like an alien and is surrounded by suspicion and repugnance. Only later on does it dawn on him that his father had made a life’s sacrifice by taking a loan he will never be able to repay, just to get him to Jerusalem. In his inner blindness, the boy was unable to recognize his father’s love for him. In a cathartic moment, he realizes their essential oneness, the instinct of the father’s “masochistic righteousness”, has also infiltrated into him. “My father loved me! Even though I was nearsighted, he still loved me! He ought to have shouted the good news from the hilltops!”

The good news (gospel) of love – and all that is no more than a compulsive escape in a world restricted by interests – becomes real in the relationship of father and son. Spiró weaves the gospel into Uri’s fate and might as well finish his novel triumphantly here; however, we will not get away with the encouraging lesson that what was lost may be regained. György Spiró does not place all this as a conclusion at the end of his novel, but some 170 pages before the end. Catharsis is posthumous. On his return home, Uri is greeted only by his mother – “my idiotic mother”, a mother figure drawn as particularly obnoxious and repugnant, unparalleled in Hungarian literature. The father is dead, but he did not expect Uri to return anyway. “His father did not know him well. He did not expect him to return home, out of love for him.” Mutual love goes together with mutual misunderstanding.

The only way to achieve catharsis, happiness and well-established, fought-for freedom is to finish the story in the right place. Spiró does not stop time at the moment of Uri’s happy recognition. If he is God’s spy, after all, he will have to watch his whole life to the end – a life that has not got much happiness in store for him. Whatever can be known about this life is told by the last and cruellest sentence of the novel, the bitter acknowledgment of the fact that to stay alive in this world is a value in its own right. Another great achievement of Spiró’s is Uri being unable to write the book that he planned on the Jewish war. The author resists the temptation of casually throwing an apocryphal work behind his character, thereby denying Captivity the “Eco twist”. This way, despite the political context of the world depicted in it, Captivity does not become a politicized book and makes no concessions. The unfinished nature of Uri’s work is what makes the novel a complete whole – a sad, disconsolate and uncomfortable victory.

Spiró György: Fogság
Budapest: Magvető, 2005

József Keresztesi

Translated by: Ágnes Erdős

Tags: György Spiró: Captivity, György Spiró