Captivity: A Novel
by György Spiró
New York: Restless Books, 864 pages, $29.99
Michael Chabon once wrote a novel titled Jews with Swords, then re-titled something tamer (Gentlemen of the Road). Explaining his initial choice, he said: “The story of the Jews centers around—one might almost say that it stars—the hazards and accidents, the misfortunes and disasters, the feats of inspiration, the travail and despair, and intermittent moments of glory and grace, that entail upon journeys from home and back again.” From Abraham’s first encounter with God and his reception of the First Commandment (which Chabon renders, “Thou shalt get lost”), Jewish history has been an epic adventure. When Chaim Potok came to write his history of the Jewish people, he titled it Wanderings: God’s chosen ones, whose promised land is lodged permanently in their hearts, are as much nomads as settlers. Well before Tolkien’s sojourning hobbits, the life of the Jewish people was the ultimate tale of “there and back again.”
Or so contends Captivity, the Hungarian Jewish novelist György Spiró’s 800-page-plus chronicle of the wanderings of a first-century Jew named Uri. Dispensing with layered characterization, and eschewing the literary ponderousness one might expect given its blurbs, Captivity is more akin to Chabon’s comic book–inspired fictions than, say, the complex offerings of Spiró’s fellow Hungarian Jewish novelist Arthur Koestler. Uri is less a three-dimensional person than a vehicle for Spiró to demonstrate his dizzying knowledge of first-century Jewish life and his knack for narrative cliffhangers. Uri’s trek from Rome to Jerusalem and Alexandria and back to Rome is a curio cabinet displaying Bildungsromanische baubles.
Captivity’s narrative arc is as follows: Gaius Theodorus, or “Uriel” in his native Hebrew (“Uri,” for short), is a Jew and a citizen of Rome, who grows up watching his father try to eke out a living in the Transtiberim, a Jewish ghetto in the empire’s capitol. Uri’s frailty and studiousness earn him no plaudits from his father, a freedman who curries favor with Agrippa, the Jewish prince in Emperor Caligula’s circle. Uri contributes what he can to the household by taking advantage of the government dole to which his citizenship entitles him.
When Agrippa comes calling on Uri’s father, asking for an impossibly large loan, Uri’s father is bound to comply, even though doing so guarantees his bankruptcy. Spiró’s novel limns brilliantly this delicate adherence to the ancient code of Roman honor. As client, Uri’s father cannot escape the hierarchy in which he is enmeshed. As patron, Agrippa exploits the hierarchy with aplomb but is, in turn, beholden to the eventual counter-request. In return for his loan, Uri’s father wants Agrippa to appoint his son, despite Uri’s sagging belly and weak eyes, to a delegation of Roman Jews who will soon travel to Jerusalem for Passover to deliver the annual Temple tax. Agrippa concedes—he’s already spent the entirety of his loan on a single dinner party—and Uri, the reluctant conscript in his superiors’ designs, departs. It is here that Captivity takes off, in its plot and in its kaleidoscopic depiction of ancient Mediterranean Jewish enclaves—a welter of lurid, violent, majestic, and hilarious images.
Spiró’s novel has been praised for its basis in extensive research. Spiró seems to have familiarized himself with the usual sources—Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars, Tacitus’s Annals and Histories, Josephus’s The Jewish War—as well as the Talmud and the works of Philo of Alexandra. There are learned essays inserted into various scenes, compact analogues of Les Misérables’s Parisian sewer tour and Moby-Dick’s whaling tutorial, my favorite being a three-page, tongue-in-cheek Mishnaic disquisition on the Jewish law’s permission of brothels. At times, Spiró’s improbably broad reading seems to serve cliché: Uri encounters multiple luminaries of the ancient world, arriving at historical hinge points just long enough for Spiró’s lens to render a cameo.
These cameos provide little new insight into any of the famed Jewish or Greco-Roman personages who cross paths with Uri at multiple junctures—with perhaps one exception. Immediately after arriving in Jerusalem, Uri finds himself, through a series of unfortunate events, occupying space in Pontius Pilate’s prison. He awakes one night to the jangling of the jailer’s keys and the arrival of a new prisoner, “an older, heavier man. … He was balding, and his bedraggled, graying beard was unkempt.” Earlier that week, this prisoner had been up to the Temple mount where he had witnessed the money changers cheating people. “So I tipped a few tables over,” he mutters. Sounding “tired and resigned,” he continues: “They [the Temple cashiers] brazenly leech on people’s faith. And the wretched people hand over what little money they have.” Spiró has rightly learned from New Testament scholarship that Jesus’s demonstration in the temple was the proximate cause of his arrest and final demise, but he has missed—or intentionally rejected?—the consensus that Jesus’s demonstration wasn’t primarily about social justice. When he turned the tables over, Jesus was enacting a symbol of the temple’s coming destruction—and implying his status as the ultimate decider of the fate of Israel.
If Spiró had left his Jesus cameo at that, readers might safely place his novel alongside Ben-Hur as a Jewish romance with no prophetic edge. But Spiró goes farther. Shortly after the novel’s Hungarian release, an interviewer praised Spiró’s decision to portray “Christ [as] a minor character, and [how] Uri realizes only toward the end that he had met [Christ] by chance in the prison of Jerusalem.” To which Spiró replied: “For me, the important thing was that [Jesus] should remind Uri of his father. … For me, the fact that Jesus is a father figure for him was more important than anything else. This is Uri’s, not Jesus’s, novel after all.” Uri is not a character in a conventional “Jesus novel”; rather, Jesus is a bit player in a drama about a first-century Jewish everyman.
This approach to Jesus gains poignancy towards the novel’s end, when Uri’s erratic son Marcellus takes up with the new Messianic sect Jesus left behind. At the novel’s climax, Spiró’s Messianic detour in a Jerusalem prison on an ordinary Passover eve starts to seem closer to his narrative’s main thoroughfare. When Uri’s younger, favored son Theo asks his father whether he’s able to believe the Christians’ message, Uri replies, “No, I’m not. … Because if the Anointed were to come, then everything would change radically, and that would be obvious to us. If he came and was killed and yet everything did not change, then he can’t have been the Anointed.”
On its surface, Uri’s conclusion is little more than a derivative of Martin Buber’s classic articulation of the impossibility, for Jews, of the Christian claim for Jesus’s Messianic status. Writing to the New Testament scholar Karl-Ludwig Schmidt in 1933, Buber said: “We [Jews] know more deeply, more truly, that world history has not been turned upside-down to its very foundations—that the world is not yet redeemed. We sense its unredeemedness.” However, by having Uri articulate the same conclusion only after his return to Rome—after his tour through the pluriform Jewish communities of Judea, after his exposure to the shimmer of Alexandria’s temples and the treasures of its library, and his eyewitness experience of that city’s frenzied pogrom in 38 CE—Spiró makes clear that his “Jesus novel” is something subtler than a picaresque with cameos. Spiró has plotted a kind of not-“Jesus novel,” in which Jesus is one more all-too-human victim of the world’s insatiable need to make Messiahs of its heroes and of the world’s concomitant, relentless persecution of the Jews. To boot, it’s the most enjoyable, swashbuckling Jews-with-swords not-“Jesus novel” likely to be written for a very long time.
Wesley Hill is assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry.