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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Spiró György

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To purchase Captivity

Title: Captivity
Author: Spiró György
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 860 pages
Original in: Hungarian
Availability: Captivity - US
Captivity - UK
Captivity - Canada
Captivity - India
  • Hungarian title: Fogság
  • Translated by Tim Wilkinson

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Our Assessment:

A- : thorough, fascinating, and rarely flags

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 21/9/2015 .
The Spectator . 9/1/2016 Tibor Fischer
Wall St. Journal A 25/11/2015 Sam Sacks

  From the Reviews:
  • "The pacing is slow but deliberate, evocative and richly detailed. Spiró's elaborate style reflects Uri's acute observation, with the hint of a wink at the reader. (...) A thoroughly impressive literary feat." - Publishers Weekly

  • "For me, the Jewish element of the novel was the most successful. Having a bookish, short-sighted shlemiel as your central character isn’t a bad move with the reading public (.....) You have to admire Spiró’s industry, because not only is Captivity a mighty length, it is also dense. He’s really thought about it. Oddly enough for someone who made his name as a dramatist, he’s quite sparing with dialogue." - Tibor Fischer, The Spectator

  • "Mr. Spiró’s interest is less in political maneuvering or dashing adventure than in providing a mosaic-like picture of Jewish life throughout the Roman world. (...) The level of detail is stunning (.....) Mr. Spiró’s encyclopedic tendencies do not hobble Captivity, which never loses steam." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Captivity follows Jewish Roman citizen Gaius Theodorus -- known as Uri -- from when, aged nineteen, he is sent on a delegation to Judae, and then travels on to Alexandria before finally returning to Rome a few years later. It begins close to the time of Christ's death, and then accelerates when Uri has returned to Rome, through Caligula's ascension to the Roman throne, and then the reigns of Claudius and Nero.
       The novel centers closely on Uri, and appropriately it begins not in his earlier childhood but when he is uprooted from his family (and his homeland); from then on he is literally individual, and while he will come to have ties -- familial, friendly, and professional -- and settle down in various locales these all prove more or less tenuous, and throughout there is very much a sense of him standing alone.
       In focusing on and through Uri, the narrative is also, like Uri, myopic -- aware of the historic changes going on, but seeing those that do not directly touch Uri more as a blur than distinctly. Uri has a good sense of some of what is happening, and he encounters some of the leading figures of the time, but Spiró does not follow too closely in the trend of historical writing that puts protagonists in the thick of everything and has them in close contact with the high and mighty and witness to every momentous decision. So here even an encounter with Christ barely registers at the time.
       Similarly, the novel is paced to go along with Uri's maturation: at the beginning everything is new for essentially still-adolescent Uri, and practically every day brings new experiences; here the novel follows his progress in close, painstaking detail. By the time he's returned to Rome a few years later he's mature if not downright jaded; the day-to-day doesn't stand out nearly as much and the narrative proceeds much more quickly, eventually skipping along over months and years at a time. Rome is undergoing dramatic changes during this period, but mature Uri is now able to stand back and consider the big picture, rather than let himself be thrown about by the day to day minutiae, as he was when he first set out. It's an effective narrative technique: 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 way, Spiró impressively focuses his historical novel on the local and individual -- as well as specifically the communities that define Uri and often set him apart, his Jewish religion and his Roman citizenship. But 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 extremely nearsighted, and a polyglot bookworm. As a Roman citizen he has some privileges and standing, but as he nears adulthood his future is a bit uncertain. His physical limitations aside -- he's been going bald since age sixteen, on top of it all -- he shouldn't have too much to complain about:

(I)t was a distinctly good time to be Jewish in Rome, and not a good time to be a senator or a knight; it was a good time to be poor, and not so good to be rich, because anyone might be condemned, have his fortune taken and be put to death, with any denunciation given credence.
       The opportunity that suddenly comes Uri's way is, nevertheless, exceptional -- "Jerusalem ! Home ! Where the Temple is !". Of course, that's also part of the problem: notorious Agrippa had asked Uri's father for a loan -- and when Agrippa asks, it's impossible to say no. Uri and his father know already then that the debt -- because the money for Agrippa has to be borrowed, too; Uri's father doesn't have those kinds of funds -- will be almost impossible to repay over any lifetime, but there's nothing to be done. But the one concession Uri's father wrangles out of Agrippa is to have Uri made a member of the delegation bringing offerings to Jerusalem -- a great experience and opportunity, even though Uri is, of course, regarded with suspicion by those he travels with both for his connection to Agrippa and his suspicious inclusion in this group.
       As the group nears its destination there are hints of larger tensions in the air, too:
     "This year Pilate is going to Jerusalem earlier than usual," Matthew muttered to himself. "Very early.
     There must be some trouble in Judea after all, that suggested.
       After their lengthy journey, the delegation has little use for Uri when they get to Judae and cut him loose as soon as they can. Uri winds up incarcerated -- briefly sharing his cell with three prisoners who are unceremoniously led away on the Friday before Passover -- but soon enough winds up dining with Pilate himself, and Herod Antipas. But he already sees the writing in the stars:
     I'm dining with a king and a prefect. This is not going to end well.
       Uri endures some internal exile in Judae -- one of the few things they can think to do with him -- but it allows him to experience something new again. He bristles some at how he's been treated and asserts more of his individuality, realizing that it's dangerous (and unpleasant) to have to pick sides (or be thought to have picked one or another, as others repeatedly do about him; he can't quite bring himself to simply accept his fate -- that, as someone explains to him: "Whether you're a sleepwalker or an ignorant novice, you still become what people consider you to be, and you can't do anything about that"):
"I don't want to live in any community ! I don't want to know anything about anybody !"
       Regardless, he realizes that he is a pawn of sorts -- but has no idea exactly in what game. Still:
     He was being kept in Jerusalem, kept in the country, fed and watered as if he were livestock marked for slaughter.
       At least he's clever enough that, once he has served his purpose, he gets a favor in return: allowed to leave he manages to arrange it so that his journey home first takes him to the other city of his dreams, Alexandria. There he can pursue some of his scholarly interests, finding in Philo of Alexandria a mentor and benefactor. It's the happiest time in his life, especially once he is admitted to the Gymnasium -- the highest local institution of learning. Yet his myopia still extends beyond simply the physical:
     "We're in a time of peace, gymnasiarch, said Uri. "There will be no war during my lifetime."
     Isidorus laughed.
     "You're naïve, my child," he said, almost affectionately. "It's a good thing there are some idiots among your generation."
       Indeed, things go south soon enough, first for the Jews of Alexandria. By the time he's ready to leave for Rome Uri is singing a different tune, realizing:
A period of frightful gravity is coming, cheerless, humorless, humdrum... Wars of religions, not empires...
       Yet even then Uri still believes Rome won't be too badly touched by these -- and, oh how wrong he is.
       The novel accelerates upon Uri's return to Rome. His life suddenly becomes domestic: he has a mother and sister to take care of, and soon a wife -- definitely not of his choosing. A son, Theo, is the light of his life, and he has several more children, but anything resembling domestic bliss is not in the cards.
       A new threat appears, the baffling-to-Uri Nazarenes, and he and his family are washed up in the Roman over-reaction to that perceived threat, leading to another period of exile that also comes at considerable personal cost. Eventually things settle back down in Rome, and so can Uri; he is able to pursue some of his interests -- including, desperately, trying to save valuable records, his love of books a one constant he believes he can hold onto until the end; alas, Uri remains a naïf in these sorts of respects to the -- yes, bitter -- end.
       The story goes to Nero's death, and beyond, by which time Uri is an old man. The one woman he loved has become empress -- though she admits it's all gone to hell: "I just sham it" -- and even nostalgia ("It would have been nice to grow old together with you", Uri says, imagining what might have been) doesn't stand a chance in the face of brute, hard, cold reality. There are hints of what is to come -- his one-time love is well aware of the Nazarenes, and casually notes: "'It's a simple religion,' she said. 'It will win through.'" -- and all Uri can hope for is to record what he can, to write his own book. But even that .....
       Uri is admittedly rather conveniently smart -- book-smart, certainly, if less frequently the: "strategos gone wrong", as he once described himself -- with a talent for languages, but he's nevertheless 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.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 November 2015

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Captivity: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Hungarian author Spiró György was born in 1946.

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© 2015-2021 the complete review

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