Alongside Peter Nádas's long-awaited Parallel stories (Párhuzamos történetek), György Spiró's new novel, Captivity (Fogság), is the latest Hungarian literary sensation. Captivity is a reconstruction of the period from around the death of Christ until the Jewish War. In an interview with Erika Csontos, Spiró talks about why he needed 800 pages to finish his story; why he imagined Jesus as a chubby, fortyish guy; and why people can no longer read the Iliad.
Erika Csontos: Did you have any preconceptions when you started working on the novel?
György Spiró: 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 worldview 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 is worth every sacrifice.
EC: You used historical sources: Suetonius, Tacitus, and Josephus Flavius.
GS: And Cassius Dio, who is not translated into Hungarian for some reason.
EC: And the philosopher who ardently fought for the reconciliation of Greeks and Jews: Philo of Alexandria.
GS: 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.
EC: Who manipulated the text, and why?
GS: 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 been born before the destruction of the Second Temple (70 AC). 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 nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
EC: Why are the small details of everyday life and the visual reconstruction of inner and outer spaces and buildings so important for you?
GS: Because I was interested in everyday reality. An archaeologist called Leon published a book about Jewish catacombs in 1960, and all the names inCaptivity 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 so blatantly as historians who belong to other schools.
EC: From your book, we get a taste of contemporary Jerusalem, even the Temple. It is as if you had been there in secret.
GS: I have only been in Rome, and quite long ago. But just think of it: only one column has remained intact in ancient Alexandria. And I wanted to present it as if I had walked there myself...
EC: On what basis did you decide whose point of view to take?
GS: 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 realized 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 realize that – the first century was pretty unreligious. 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, Latins, Jews, and Greeks alike.
EC: Captivity is almost 800 pages long. Why is it so long-winded?
GS: I planned a 450-page novel. I thought that since world politics was done 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.
GS: 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.
EC: Finally the novel came out in four parts.
GS: 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, and so on. 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.
EC: The four parts take forty years altogether.
GS: The novel starts in 35, when Jesus was crucified, and 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 realized that I needed a protagonist, because the reader wants to clutch 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.
GS: People are incapable of experiencing the sense of community any more, 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 gives ample space to the lyricization and the ideologization of prose. This is generally called postmodern, but it could 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 heart they desire Rousseau in whom they recognize 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..
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