by György Spiró
Translated from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson
Winner of the Aegon Literary Award
“Monumental…. The level of detail is stunning; Mr. Spiró seems to know absolutely everything about the first-century Mediterranean world… [Captivity] never loses steam. In Tim Wilkinson’s forceful translation, we are transported to a world of political corruption and messianic hopes.... You can read it as a parable of the Jewish condition amid the modern empires of Europe, or you can simply lose yourself in the ancient setting it so comprehensively describes.”
—Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal
“BEN HUR, BUT BIGGER AND BETTER. Hungarian writer György Spiró’s newly translated novel Captivity powerfully sets the perils of modern Jewry in Early Christian Rome."
—Adam Kirsch, Tablet
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A literary sensation, György Spiró’s Captivity is both a highly sophisticated historical novel and a gripping page-turner. Set in the tumultuous first century A.D., between the year of Christ’s death and the outbreak of the Jewish War, Captivity recounts the adventures of the feeble-bodied, bookish Uri, a young Roman Jew.
Frustrated with his hapless son, Uri’s father sends the young man to the Holy Land to regain the family’s prestige. In Jerusalem, Uri is imprisoned by Herod and meets two thieves and (perhaps) Jesus before their crucifixion. Later, in cosmopolitan Alexandria, he undergoes a scholarly and sexual awakening—but must also escape a pogrom. Returning to Rome at last, he finds an entirely unexpected inheritance.
Equal parts Homeric epic, brilliantly researched Jewish history, and picaresque adventure, Captivity is a dramatic tale of family, fate, and fortitude. In its weak-yet-valiant hero, fans will be reminded of Robert Graves’ classics of Ancient Rome, I, Claudius and Claudius the God.
“Monumental…. The level of detail is stunning; Mr. Spiró seems to know absolutely everything about the first-century Mediterranean world and revels in Herodotean digressions…. Mr. Spiró’s encyclopedic tendencies do not hobble “Captivity,” which never loses steam. In Tim Wilkinson’s forceful translation, we are transported to a world of political corruption and messianic hopes. Uri, whose maturation gives the story its psychological heft, exemplifies the enigmas and tensions of Diaspora Jewry across history. Readers will find particularly strong resonance in the scenes of the Alexandria riots of A.D. 38, pointedly depicted as the first pogrom in history. “Horrors are on the way,” Uri predicts. “Alexandria is a model: it will become fashionable wherever a significant Jewish minority is living, be it in Africa or Asia, anywhere, it is going to be expedited in just the same way.”... Mr. Spiró has been a celebrated figure in Hungarian letters since the 1970s, but the remarkable “Captivity” (from 2005) is the first of his novels to be translated into English. You can read it as a parable of the Jewish condition amid the modern empires of Europe, or you can simply lose yourself in the ancient setting it so comprehensively describes.”
"With the novel Captivity, Spiró proves that he is well-versed in both historical and human knowledge. It appears that in our times, it is playfulness that is expected of literary works, rather than the portrayal of realistic questions and conflicts. As if the two, playfulness and seriousness were inconsistent with each other! On the contrary (at least for me) playfulness begins with seriousness. Literature is a serious game. So is Spiró’s novel."
—Imre Kertész, Nobel Prize-winning author of Fatelessness
“‘BEN HUR,’ BUT BIGGER AND BETTER. Hungarian writer György Spiró’s newly translated novel Captivity powerfully sets the perils of modern Jewry in Early Christian Rome…. Captivity [is] a sprawling (more than 800 pages), picturesque, old-fashioned historical novel about the Roman Empire, in the showy tradition of Ben Hur and I, Claudius. In fact, both Jesus and Claudius, the main characters of those books, make cameo appearances in Captivity, as do other boldface names of the 1st century CE, including Caligula, Pontius Pilate, and Philo of Alexandria. What sets Captivity apart is that it makes the rare attempt to view all these historical phenomena—from the rise of Christianity to the flamboyant vices of the emperors—through a distinctively Jewish lens…. Where Spiró excels is dramatizing the world through which Uri moves—its political institutions and social arrangements, its sights and smells. In just the first section of the book, set in Rome, we are treated to gladiatorial combat, a client’s morning visit to his patron, and a brutal public execution. These archetypal scenes of Roman life shock us into realizing the ways in which the ancient world differed from our own—the extreme brutality, the fixed and undisguised hierarchy, the omnipresent corruption…. a complex and thoughtful portrait of what Judaism meant in ancient Rome…. Captivity draws you in with its pageant of the classical world, but by the end it also turns out to be a profound meditation on what Judaism meant, and means.”
“[One of] the fifty best independent press books of 2015.… There is no shortage of Hungarian masters writing enormous novels — Krasznahorkai and Nádas immediately come to mind — but Spiró’s epic road novel stands on its own. A picaresque that doubles as a kind of Jewish history, it’s remarkably still a page-turner.”
“György Spiró presents a theory in novelistic form about the interwovenness of religion and politics, lays bare the inner workings of power, and gives insight into the art of survival…. This book is an incredible page turner; it reads easily and avidly like the greatest bestsellers while also going as deep as the greatest thinkers of European philosophy.”
—Aegon Literary Award 2006 jury recommendation
“Thorough, fascinating, and rarely flags.… Captivity is a very long novel (of about 350,000 words), but pacing it as he does Spiró quite easily holds the reader's attention through to the (surprisingly bitter) end.… In this remarkably thorough and detailed novel Spiró also manages to present a great deal of substantive historical and cultural information—adroitly too: it rarely feels like simple information-dumping, as instead he weaves even obscure details about (especially Jewish) life in those times into the narrative in a way that doesn't feel forced.… [Uri is] an impressively convincing character, whose path through these tumultuous times Spiró chronicles thoroughly engagingly. There's lots of knowingness here, yet even in the casual treatment of, for example, Christianity, it's almost never heavy-handed. The historic events are also very well-handled—in particular the frenzies that bubble up and then subside, and how life is at one moment on razor's edge, and then returns (at least for the survivors) to almost everyday banality. Captivity is a superior, well-researched historical novel, but history aside it's also simply a vey good story, with a compelling protagonist.”
“Brilliant… [Uri is] a Joseph Campbell-worthy epic hero.… There’s a lot packed into these pages, including an engagingly complicated portrait of Roman-Jewish relations in the early empire, a rambunctious tour of ancient philosophies (including a hilarious semi-Mishnaic defense of prostitution), and no end of plain, good shaggy dog humor. A winning and thoughtful entertainment, somewhere between Lives of the Caesars and The Tin Drum.”
“Uri, the hero of Spiró's enormous novel, is a Jewish Candide, although the scope of his exploits suggests more of a naive Don Quixote type.… Deliberate, evocative and richly detailed. Spiró's elaborate style reflects Uri's acute observation, with the hint of a wink at the reader.… Spiró, a Hungarian man of letters, juxtaposes the prosaic and the significant with aplomb and offers a cheeky, unique view of history through the eyes of his modest everyman. A thoroughly impressive literary feat.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"György Spiró’s extensive research renders Captivity a powerful time machine, but his strategies shape a historiographic metafiction that highlights the links between that world and our own…. Beyond bringing to vivid life a decisive human era, Captivity offers a meditation on man’s fate in an absurd world."
"Like the authors of so many great novels, György Spiró sends his hero, Uri, out into the wide world. Uri is a Roman Jew born into a poor family, and the wide world is an overripe civilization—the Roman Empire. Captivity can be read as an adventure novel, a Bildungsroman, a richly detailed portrait of an era, and a historico-philosophical parable. The long series of adventures—in which it is only a tiny episode that Uri is imprisoned together with Jesus and the two thieves—suggest at once the vanity of human endeavors and a passion for life. A masterpiece."
“A novel of education and a novel of adventure that brings to life ancient Rome, Alexandria, and Jerusalem with a vividness of detail that is stunning. Spiró’s prose is crisp and colloquial, the kind of prose that aims for precision rather than literary thrills. A serious and sophisticated novel that is also engrossing and highly readable is a rare thing. Captivity is such a novel.”
—Ivan Sanders, Columbia University
“A visceral new form of epic history. Here mountains of trivia form vivid landscapes and academic minutiae open windows into the soul of a forgotten age. It is a work of fiction, though, and it is hilarious.... Spiró’s serious accomplishment is to challenge the chilling observation, popularly attributed to Stalin, that “one death is a tragedy and one million deaths a statistic” by breathing life into the neglected statistics of a magnificent—and terrifying, brutal—age.… An intently philosophical book.… Captivity expresses historical ideas authentically.… As an award-winning author, Spiró displays predictable creativity, but the real power of Captivity is the ability the extensive historical detail lends the reader to inhabit and empathize with ancient life. It is difficult to imagine a more entertaining way to realize so much data, and it is wonderful that Spiró has managed such an accomplishment. His technique is a welcome innovation for historical fiction in general, and perhaps the drollest scholarly introduction to the first century yet.”
“Intensively researched.… The book’s major strengths are its vast scope and its depictions of the nitty-gritty of daily life.… Spiró weaves a tremendous amount of research into his dense fiction. The payoff is a deep immersion for the reader.… I never wanted to put the book aside.… Spiró is wonderful at depicting the flowing, overlapping nature of religious and other traditions two thousand years ago. To read his book is to gain a deep perspective into human nature and the roots of much of today’s Western civilization. Passionate and academic, overflowing with detail, thoroughly engrossing, it’s a powerful, important work. Tim Wilkinson, a past PEN/Book of the Month Club Translation Prize winner, has done a great service to modern literature by tackling this behemoth of a novel.”
“This remarkable novel, recently translated from the Hungarian, is as close as we are likely to get to a real feel for how it was to live in the first century CE…. Spiró’s artistic agility shines in his recreation of the world through which Uri moves…. Spiró has absorbed an awesome amount of information to create his ancient tableaux. He demonstrates a mastery of everything from the silk trade to the workings of ancient economies…. The strength of the book is in its unheroic, unillusioned depiction of ancient life…. if you are curious about the ancient world, if you wish to get a 'finger-feel' for what it was like to live there, and to think about the forces that shaped the rise of Christianity, Captivity is well worth your time. Here is a faithful, fantastically informed, and extravagantly detailed picture of one of the most turbulent and consequential moments in human history.”
—Rabbi David Wolpe, Los Angeles Review of Books
About the Author
“A literary juggernaut well worth the effort.… Told with stunning detail.… Spiró manages to combine the intellectual rigor of history with an entertaining, pathos-charged narrative.… The author’s encyclopedic level of historical detail—from the intricacies of the tediously banal tax system under Roman rule to the nuances of imperial politics—is a marvel to read and appreciate. Spiró has plenty of space to display his meticulously researched world, and his ability to turn a historically accurate portrayal of Rome’s economic and political system into a compelling and entertaining literary tour-de-force reveal a writer in full control of his craft.… Spiró’s depiction of this cold, calculating world and its equally brutal inhabitants is wonderfully unsentimental. Much like his fellow Hungarian writers László Krasznahorkai and Péter Nádas, Spiró pulls no punches when it comes to the greedy and manipulative tendencies underlying human behavior.… In Tim Wilkinson’s translation, there is no overwrought elegance to Spiró’s prose; it is lucid and relentless.… In this unflinching portrayal of Ancient Roman life, Spiró has put himself on the map alongside his Hungarian contemporaries—let’s hope more translations will be on the way.”
—Rain Taxi Review of Books
Born in 1946 in Budapest, award-winning dramatist, novelist, and translator György Spiró has earned a reputation as one of postwar Hungary’s most prominent and prolific literary figures. He teaches at ELTE University of Budapest, where he specializes in Slavic literatures.
About the Translator
Tim Wilkinson gave up his job in the pharmaceutical industry to translate Hungarian literature and history. He is the primary translator of Nobel Prize-winner Imre Kertész. Wilkinson’s translation of Kertész’s Fatelessness won the PEN/Book of the Month Club Translation Prize in 2005.
To mark the occasion of Nobel Prize-winning Hungarian author Imre Kertész's eighty-fifth birthday this November 9, we asked his longtime friend and colleague, Captivity author György Spiró, to reflect on the impact of Kertész's masterwork Fatelessness and their friendship.