New work – 3rd January, 2018

György Spiró: Captivity (Excerpt #2)

translated by Tim Wilkinson

New work–3rd January, 2018

New work

translated by Tim Wilkinson

Being a Roman citizen with full rights, he was entitled to enter into conversation with all sorts of people in the true Rome, and he tried to speak with everybody in their own mother tongue. – We are pleased to bring you the next excerpt from György Spiró's Captivity, translated by Tim Wilkinson.

Up till then, the offering had always reached Jerusalem, for even when it was robbed, it was collected anew and delivered later. It had gone this way for ninety-eight years, since the first Jews landed up in Rome; a sacrifice was supposedly sent, in accordance with tradition, already in the first year, and that was surely true. It must have been a small sum, no more than a few hundred asses altogether, but it was saved at the expense of their stomachs, collected, and sent off. They themselves were unable to go: their ears were pierced and they lived their life in chains, but non-Jews could be persuaded to take it—for money. They paid and sent the money, and have every year since then. More and more, as things began to take a turn for the better for the Jews in Rome, and for a fair amount of time, they had been carrying the money themselves, with official permission. By now they were walking over into the true Rome. Uri did not turn around to glance at the Jewish quarter on the far side, since all he would have seen anyway was fuzzy blotches.
 At the Circus Maximus they swung southward. These were all familiar streets; Uri would never have imagined the day would come that he would pass that way in such an official capacity.

They tramped silently, like people who were on an important mission.

They left Rome by the Porta Capena. Wagons laden with produce were by then already creaking their way in toward the markets.

They came to a halt at the beginning of the Appian Way, at the Jewish house of prayer near the cemetery.

“Let’s take a rest,” Matthew said. “Anyone who wants breakfast may eat.”

“May we open the sacks now?” one man asked. Uri took a squint: he was strong man with a thick, black beard.

“They are yours,” Matthew said. “A present from the community.”

Uri nibbled on a matzo; that was his favorite, and some days that was all he ate, because matzos were able to sop up the acid that would well up from his stomach.

“Let’s move off now!” asserted a thickset man.

“Our goal is not to walk ourselves into the ground,” said Matthew. “We shall have plenty of chances to walk. Just wait.”

They were silent and ate.
“Where shall we get water?” asked the thickset man.
“There will be water everywhere we stop,” said Matthew. “Wine as well.” The day was dawning. More and more wagons appeared on the street. Along the Appian Way came an empty wagon with two oxen in harness.

Matthew got to his feet and waved; the wagon stopped.
Matthew climbed on next to the driver at the front; the other six clambered on to the back. The wagon turned and set off in a southerly direction.


The beating of Uri’s heart began to slacken when he wedged his sack under his back. Everybody was silent, and Uri did not dare give the once-over to the companions with whom he would be confined for months on the long journey. He gazed at the countryside; he could see the roadside cypresses fairly clearly but not buildings and plants that were more than 100 or 150 paces away. For him they were a blur of greenish, yellowish, and brownish blots, and the sky above, as it was February, a clear blue. Uri peered through narrow eyes, more with the left one because he saw better through that, using the right eye more for reading and inspecting small objects.

They jolted along on the wagon without a word. Uri regained his composure; the trip might be tedious and without incident, and if his companions were not talkative and did not pester him unnecessarily, he might be able to put up with them. The signs suggested that they too were awed to take part in this sacrosanct journey. Uri felt a twinge of conscience: his father had paid out two hundred thousand sesterces so he could jolt along on this wagon now, and even so, he was not truly glad. He made up his mind that he was going to be glad.

It was hard to control his outrage when he realized that his father had loaned Agrippa roughly two and a half times as much money as the total offering of Rome’s Jews that they were bringing to Jerusalem.

Better not to think about it.
He jolted along on the wagon and became sleepy.
He had the sense of being enclosed in a husk: nearby things that he could readily see were, so to speak, pressed onto his body by a fabric of colored blotches, and because there was nothing of interest in the visible world, he was in the end in the grip of a hazy trust that even were there to be an opportunity in the course of the long journey to reflect as he did in his little recess back at home, although without having his treasured scrolls at hand, but then the bulk of those were already committed to memory. Beyond the cage of the visible world, inside the space of these thoughts, he was filled with a sense of the security that slaves feel: he had no cares for anything, his companions would take care of him and defend him, and it seemed that he would not even be forced to chitchat with them, which was something he detested.

After all, he was the exception, he had done nothing to deserve the distition; his companions had no doubt all done something that merited membership in the official festive delegation to Jerusalem, in adherence to the rotation principle of the Elders, in consultation with the archisynagogoses of the individual assemblies and taking their recommendations on board, or else modifying them—who could know exactly what went on in the rare sessions of the Roman Sanhedrin—had decided on these individuals, obviously with good reason; better that he spoke with them as little as possible so that his own unsuitability, both spiritual and physical, should not come too soon to light.

As Uri jolted along on the wagon with his taciturn companions, staring at the trees as they slowly retreated (the oxen pulled the wagon no faster than they would have been able to walk), and as these trees assumed ever more uncertain outlines in the distance, it dawned on him that, even after his eyesight had deteriorated he had still been able to move around confidently in the true Rome and also in the labyrinthine, interconnecting inner yard of Far Side, because he could project memorized images onto the present so that he knew exactly what was where, and he only got confused in the real Rome if he was unable to find a building that had once stood but had burned down or been dismantled and another built in its place. In those cases, he would walk around the place a number of times to make a mental note of it. Now, though, these were all new places of which he had no memories or any notion, and he had to reach the sad conclusion that, indeed, someone else ought to have been sent on this big journey instead. He was not even going to see the splendor of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, not even if he was allowed to get close to it, to be sure, not even if he was allowed to stand directly beside the altar stone that is said to be situated right in front of the Temple. To be allowed close to the altar is a huge blessing; the scrimmage is fierce, and only the true elect are admitted into the small space. They might admit a delegation from Rome, perhaps, but even then maybe only the leader.

But then if I have ended up in this group, transporting money to Jerusalem, let me see that famous altar and the wondrous Temple from close to, he thought with an effort because he did not suppose that the prospect of being able to see the Temple and the altar would fill him with any joy. However little he wanted to see, it crossed his mind that it was still possible to turn back.

Just get off the wagon and start off northward, toward Rome. It was not far. Or else he could wait for the night and take off when the others were asleep, not returning to Rome but seeking out a town and selling himself into slavery (that sort of thing was not uncommon), and, if he was in luck, even denying being a Jew. After all, they did not necessarily check if slaves had circumcised penises.

He shuddered at such thoughts, and it occurred to him that similar thoughts had already crossed his mind. He prayed silently that something utterly different should come to mind.

What came to mind was that he held Rome dearer than he would ever have thought. He was assailed by homesickness even though they were not yet far away. The future horrified him; with every hour, every day, he would be more distant from his home.

Over there, in the true Rome, exteriors were the most important; the fools attached everything to appearances, not to the vital. That would be what would bring them down; the Creator was not going to tolerate the intolerable to the end of time. But at least Uri felt that over there, in the true Rome, he was treated as an adult.

He could gaze at all the peoples that flocked to Rome from all parts of the world, slink right up close to give them a thorough lookover, and get close enough to know how their breath smells. There was every kind of man from ebony black through deep and light yellow to milk-white, costume of every kind; in certain squares and alleys there was a massive throng, an incredible bustle, and there were buildings and statues on the grand scale. Uri looked everything over from very close up to see it well, he even sniffed at the stonework and felt all over the walls, strolling around evenly and methodically, until he had registered in his head all of Rome, that enormous, magical city of one million people, along with all its smells and every tiny, barely palpable protrusion.

He knew the alleys where it was worth looking up every second or third step because it was likely that scraps or other filth would be tossed out onto the heads of those below; he knew which alleys cart drivers liked to careen, flattening passers-by; he knew where brothels flourished and passers-by might be knifed for no particular reason. There was one street in the Saepta, near where Roman citizens voted in the Campus Martius, that he never got to visit in the course of his rambles, because once upon a time an Illyrian giant, strong as an ox and in a quarrelsome mood, had unexpectedly attacked and almost strangled him. Uri was lucky that a military tribune happened to be going that way with his escort, and they had rescued him.

In the real Rome, his mongrel character faded into insignificance among the many hundreds of thousands of freakish people. At first sight he did not even look to be a mongrel; there were large numbers of people who were even more of a mess—sick, maimed, ulcerated, wounded, veteran legionnaires and useless, cast-off slaves with missing limbs, wailing and begging for alms at every turn. He became acquainted with that bank of the Tiber and was witness to many things that his Jewish contemporaries were denied because, being intact, they were preoccupied with life on Far Side and did not have time to wander around in the true Rome. He, however, could wander; his father never asked what he was doing with his time, nor did anyone else.

Being a Roman citizen with full rights, he was entitled to enter into conversation with all sorts of people in the true Rome, and he tried to speak with everybody in their own mother tongue. These were wonderful language lessons, and one did not even have to pay for them. Over there, he thrived, shone, played roles, bluffed; he was just one of Rome’s malingering plebeians. Back home, withdrawn in his shack, he was a pariah among the Jews because of his poor eyesight, his bad legs and back, not fit for physical labor. Among Jews he was nobody, yet in the true Rome he was a man of equal rank to whom, should he speak, people would listen just like anyone else, and they would pay as little notice to his opinion as they did anyone else’s. At home, he did not dare offer an opinion about anything; over there, however, he chattered, passed judgments, held forth, and butted in on any conversation. He had a Jewish self, and he acquired a Roman self; both sides would have been amazed to see him in the other milieu. But that they did not see.

He never denied, if asked, that he was Jewish, but nothing was made of it. “A Jew’s just like everybody else, only crazier” was the general, patronizing view of atheistic Jews and their unfounded arrogance that placed their one god above all the other gods. There was nothing hostile in that view; it was more disdainful indulgence, something that amused others. In this enormous city, citizens had gotten used to a great variety of peoples who found ways to get by in the world, and every one of them, without exception, was in Rome, with its comic superstitions and ludicrous customs. Where lanky Germanic people who barely spoke broken Latin were the emperor’s best Praetorian Guards; where philosophers descending from everywhere discoursed only in Greek, not Latin; where splendid delegations arrived from all parts of the world; where countless deposed kings were preparing to claim their throne and loafed around with their populous families; where a statue of the gods of every conquered people stood in the Forum—all except the Jewish God, the Unrepresentable One. A single Roman Jew with full civil rights counted little and raised no passions.


Previously on HLO:
György Spiró: Captivity (Excerpt #1)


Originally published as Captivity, translated by Tim Wilkinson, Restless Books, 2015.

Copyright © Restless Books

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