Thanks to the labour of the indefatigable Tim Wilkinson, this autumn we will finally gain access to an important work by yet another representative of Hungarian letters who has all the chances to become a household name among the readers of literature in translation, just like Nadas, Esterhazy and Krasznahorkai.
Captivity is a vast historical novel dedicated to the period between the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the end of the First Jewish-Roman War. The action primarily takes place in Rome, Jerusalem, and Alexandria, following the trials and tribulations of a Roman Jew called Uri. The protagonist is a physically weak yet intellectually endowed youth whose adventures start when his father arranges for his journey to Judea as part of the delegation delivering the annual ritual tax for the maintenance of the Temple in Jerusalem. In the course of the following years Uri will come of age and gain formidable knowledge and diverse skills that will make him a genuine polymath and a leading intellectual of that epoch. Among the most important formative experiences will be his captivity by Herod’s administrators, encounters with Christ and Pontius Pilate, forced labour in the countryside, and the studies in the famous city of Alexandria. While following the ups and downs of Uri’s destiny the reader will get an extensive and meticulously researched overview of the culture, economy, warfare, politics and everyday life of Ancient Rome and Judea.
The novel has been a tremendous success in Hungary, having gone through more than a dozen editions. The critics lauded its page-turning quality along with the wealth of ideas and the ambitious recreation of historical detail. I highly recommend reading this interview with György Spiró about the novel as well as this summary of his works. It is great that Captivity will reach a wider audience. However, I have to say that just judging by the description, I would have liked to see his other novel translated, The Kingfisher, which sounds totally insane:
Adopting the same sarcastic voice, he has composed a gigantic novel of nearly 800 pages, a dystopia of the present and future ages comparable to the works of Jonathan Swift or Thomas Pynchon. The Kingfisher of the title is, in fact, a woman by the name of Zsonna Bísztő, whose biography, the main body of the book, is being written by a certain Bollog Shonason who lives in the strange country of Talismania (clearly somewhere in America). The story relates how Zsonna, who was born in the Meagerland (Hungary) of our times, is becoming a victim of an international conspiracy in the course of which she is transformed into the prototype of a woman with three vaginas. Moreover, part of her brain is transplanted in the head of a kingfisher, who manages to escape and finishes her life on the remote island of Hölle, becoming in the process Talismania’s first saint: Shona Bisto. The dark and ironic novel teems with a multitude of frightening and also hilarious subplots.
I want to believe that the publication of the tamer Captivity will spark enough interest around the name of this writer to eventually bring forth the English translation of this extravaganza.