Brilliant, picaresque novel of Jewish life in the first century, a bestseller and prizewinner in Spiró’s native Hungary.
Gaius Theodorus, aka Uriel, aka Uri, is a beloved only son—until, that is, it’s revealed that he has trouble seeing, which brings down his father’s bewildered wrath. “Because you don’t want to see!” cries Joseph, not pausing to allow that though myopic, Uri loves books and stories. It might help to have a cockeyed outlook on the world, though, for in the time of Nero and company, the Roman world is upside down. Joseph dispatches young Uri to Jerusalem with the inventive charge of making his fortune there and bringing honor to a family name that needs a little refurbishing. There are two great impulses at work in Spiró’s yarn, the first being a comprehensive sociology of Roman Jewry, the second a grand, seriocomic novel of ideas. Uri, overcoming obstacles and a flaw of birth, makes for a Joseph Campbell–worthy epic hero, though events are always larger than he, and he doesn’t always appreciate their significance until well after the fact—as when, for instance, it dawns on him that he shared a cell with a certain soi-disant Messiah. “Your Anointed hero was a man!” Uri tells a zealous convert. “A man! I was jailed with him, saw him from an arm’s length away!” The translation is sometimes anachronistic and not quite idiomatic, whether Uri is expressing upset that a philosopher has “ripped off” another’s ideas or, chiding his daughters late in life, when he would regularly “tear them off a strip for not getting married.” Still, there’s a lot packed into these pages, including an engagingly complicated portrait of Roman-Jewish relations in the early empire (“We loathe, absolutely loathe your kind, but not to the extent that we too will perish”), 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.