This historical novel of ideas explores the nature of belief and the politics of religion in Christian Rome.
Diksztejn’s debut follows Saturnine—an atheist, writer, and conflicted wife of an ambitious Christian senator—and Lupicinus, adviser to the pope. The execution of her former lover, Philo, sparks Saturnine’s clandestine passion for the written word; this tragedy also introduces her to Kharapan, a man from the godless country of Chi. Kharapan appears later, at a crucial dinner with Lupicinus. Lupicinus narrates the novel, retelling the tale as a changed, decidedly godless man. Though Saturnine’s writings directly condemn the church and spirituality as tools to strengthen the empire’s grip, it’s Kharapan who heads to trial for his Hellenistic philosophizing. Diksztejn details his extensive education both in flashback and during his interrogations by Lupicinus, covering everyone from Heraclitus through Epicurus and beyond. Saturnine and others even consider the seemingly unassailable “Kingdoms,” the fictional text by a woman named Metis in which the virtues of Chi and metaphysics of the “Great Unknown” play out against the dangers of empire and dogmatic Christianity. Much of the later action (or stasis, as the case may be) surrounds Kharapan and Lupicinus’ lengthy philosophical discussions regarding agnosis—the absence of knowing and the metaphysical basis of the society of Chi—as well as the need for civilization, as exemplified by Roman Christianity. Yet that’s just the beginning: these conversations, though they advance the plot at a tortoise’s pace, provide not just philosophy, but a clash of personalities, beliefs, and strong characters: “The care you must have taken to build your proof, and document your findings! It’s the ambiguity that’s remarkable,” Kharapan says. “Perhaps it’s true,” Lupicinus replies. “The work I did, the insight I had could not have been arrived at by a believer.” Though the novel’s pacing drags through its swollen middle, Diksztejn’s complete characters and depth of thought will keep thoughtful readers pondering, even when they might disagree with Chi’s central tenets.
Though mainly a vehicle for philosophical dialogues, the novel never forgets to flesh out its complex characters or its living world.