Saturday, January 07, 2017

"Captivity" -- Boring, Superficial, and Inaccurate

György Spiró's long and rambling book Captivity relates the story of a hapless Roman Jew at the very beginning of the current era. The reviews of this novel were positive, so I decided to read it even though it's almost 900 pages long. I realized early on that I didn't like it, but I've given up on several books recently so I gritted my teeth and determined to finish this one. I do not feel even a little bit rewarded for my persistence. I recommend avoiding it. Here are three reasons:

First: the book is boring.

Uri, the central character, might have been developed in an interesting or mildly appealing way if the author had really been interested in him. However, the author seemed to have as an actual goal to write an unbearably complete (though not particularly well researched) description of life in the Roman Empire in three important places: Rome, Judea, and Alexandria. The political intrigues of the day -- emperor by emperor, corrupt scandal by corrupt scandal, Jewish persecution by Jewish persecution -- are described endlessly.

Ultimately, the whole narrative seems to be pretty pointless. There are clever references to events and people that aren't spelled out, so that if you know a little bit you can conclude that you are smart -- for example, an indirect reference to the historian Josephus towards the end of the book. I didn't think this offset how boring it was.

Second: the book is inaccurate.

Maybe you will think that it's worth getting on with a book like this because at least you will learn some history. Unfortunately, you would be much better off with a real history book. This one is full of trivial mistakes and careless oversights. I'm not an expert at all, but I saw enough to be very doubtful that the book can be trusted. I have no interest in checking the details about the lives of the emperors and their agents, or in checking the long descriptions of the Jewish neighborhood in Rome, or of life in Judea, but I noticed problems with a few areas that I've read about in the past. In some cases I think the author didn't know much more than what you could learn from a tour guide at the antiquities in Jerusalem, Caesarea, Rome, or Ostia Antiqua.

As in many historical novels, the author is careless with food details. The setting is the Roman Empire in the first century. But the characters eat oranges and grapefruit. Oranges existed in China at the time, though probably not in the Roman Empire. Grapefruit, however, is a cultivar developed in the Caribbean (like, after Columbus's voyages) and first noted in 1750. So maybe it existed by 1700 at the earliest. For quite a while it was called shaddock, later grapefruit, so the word is really wrong. There are other howlers about food ways as well -- this is just an example.

The details of Jewish customs of the era are also a bit sloppy. For example, Uri is supposed to have had a Bar Mitzvahs at the age of 13 towards the beginning of the book, and his son has one towards the end of the book. I don't think so. This custom arose in the Middle Ages, not before the fall of the Temple. I think the author didn't bother to research which Jewish customs, especially sabbath customs and burial customs like the saying of the Kaddish, arose later than the era described in the book -- often much later.

The lack of attention to detail in any particular area might be insignificant, but many suspicious errors eventually add up -- I don't have confidence in the whole.

Third: the book is superficial.

Uri, the main character in Captivity, is kind of a schlemiel who turns up in all kinds of situations contrived to be of great interest to modern readers. Sometimes the character tries to understand all his missed opportunities, including what he thinks he should have done when visiting Jerusalem and Alexandria. At one point these are his quoted thoughts:
"You’ll find no bigger impostor than me in the land of the living! Such a nonsensical gaffe! I was almost executed in Jerusalem as a supposed spy of Agrippa’s, whereas here I was pampered and sucked up to as long as that tool, that despicable Agrippa, that quarter-Jewish political vermin whom I never saw in my life, remained alive and heir presumptive of the Great Jewish Kingdom." (p. 514)
One reviewer even compared Uri to Woody Allen's Zelig. No way -- Zelig is a comic film, and it doesn't go on and on about the background. This is exactly the problem: a poorly-developed pathetic character, a contrived plot, enormous amounts of background detail that don't advance anything at all, and lots of coincidences so that the author can tell you what he thinks you want to know. Not a shred of humor!

Though Captivity is centered on Jewish life in the Roman Empire I think the book is substantially aimed at Christians who are curious about the life and times of Jesus. Indeed in the last 20 or 30% of the book, the "Nazarene" sect begins to show up, though the central character never becomes one of them. And one of the little indirect hints is the appearance of Jesus (unnamed) and two thieves in the prison cell where Uri is being held just before one particular Passover in Jerusalem, though Uri gets out and makes the acquaintance of Pontius Pilate, while the others...

I'll admit this: the author doesn't totally pander to the Christian reader, though he does go into quite a lot of detail about the beliefs of the early Christians. In fact, maybe the author overdoes the extent of Christian beliefs that he claims were established this early in history.

Just before the end of the book, Uri discusses the Nazarenes with an old friend and lover:
“It’s a simple religion,” she said. “It will win through.” ...
“It’s a dangerous religion,” he said. “It’s going to cause hideous problems.” (p. 852)

The jetty at the site of the port of Caesarea -- founded by the Romans, used in the middle ages and the Crusader era. After a
long period of disuse it was restored in the 19th century and is now an archaeology park. From our trip last summer.
In the novel Captivity, this is one of the locations where Uri travels during his stay in Judea.

1 comment:

Mae Travels said...

If the central character hadn't been so boring, a reader might take his "mistakes" seriously and then be tempted to interpret his rejection of the Christian beliefs as his final big boo-boo. The author in all his boring, inaccurate, and superficial blathering might have meant for you to interpret it this way -- the big reveal is that the stupid wandering Jew misses both the real opportunities and the final opportunity in his life to get in on salvation on the ground floor. If this is the point, then I find the book ten times more disgusting and stupid.