Ear­li­er this week, Györ­gy Spiró shared how the mys­te­ri­ous iiden­ti­ty of St. Thomas led him to write Cap­tiv­i­ty. Györ­gy will be blog­ging here all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series on The ProsenPeo­ple.

One day we walked into an Asian-Caribbean restau­rant on West 66th Street, not far from Broad­way. We had already ordered when four New York mail­men in uni­form sat down at a table next to us. They were robust, loud, and cheer­ful. One of them spread out their next week’s sched­ule, and with­out even glanc­ing at the menu, they ordered as only reg­u­lars can. I was hit by a sud­den inspi­ra­tion and turned to my sweet­heart: I’ve found the medi­um for my nov­el! It’s them.”

At that point I had already been col­lect­ing mate­r­i­al about the first cen­tu­ry CE for ten years, and had no idea in what form I would put it all into writ­ing. At one point I man­aged to sketch out an ambi­tious epic dra­ma set in many dif­fer­ent loca­tions. I even worked out a cou­ple of scenes in my head. The var­i­ous doc­u­ments and books kept pil­ing up; I dili­gent­ly copied rare mate­ri­als ordered from abroad, but the murk­i­ness and uncer­tain­ty kept grow­ing. Yet, for all that, it seemed ever more like­ly that such vast mate­r­i­al can only be treat­ed in prose.

It was in that Man­hat­tan restau­rant in April of 2002 that I decid­ed that depict­ing every­day life two thou­sand years ago was the right thing to do. I nev­er thought I’d have to start col­lect­ing mate­r­i­al from scratch, and reex­am­ine and rewrite every­thing from a new per­spec­tive. Writ­ers like to reorches­trate high-toned pol­i­tics, or pious spir­its, or dom­i­nant ide­olo­gies; pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with every­day life strikes them as exces­sive­ly fas­tid­i­ous tin­ker­ing, although it is with­in the quo­tid­i­an that all the secrets of exis­tence are concealed. 

Those liv­ing their every­day lives two thou­sand years ago did not know that they were part of an enor­mous rev­o­lu­tion. And I, the sto­ry­teller, did not nec­es­sar­i­ly have to know either. The peo­ple then had no inkling that a tiny Jew­ish sect would con­quer the world in the next three hun­dred years, though look­ing back, I can’t think of a greater and more fun­da­men­tal rev­o­lu­tion. This kind of unaware­ness is char­ac­ter­is­tic of every gen­er­a­tion. We our­selves don’t real­ly know what kind of world we live in. Lat­er gen­er­a­tions will know more, but by then we will not be in on it. We are sit­ting in a restau­rant, order in a hur­ry, our out­look extend­ing to next week’s sched­ules, and that is as it should be, for we live in the here and now, and noth­ing could be more impor­tant than these tri­fles. We are cheer­ful much more often than we should allow our­selves to be, but that, too, is as it should be.

Of course, I didn’t know yet that my easy­go­ing post­men would not decide by them­selves what sort of per­son the hero of the nov­el should be. It took half a year of work to deter­mine that the Jew­ish del­e­ga­tion deliv­er­ing a large sum of offer­ing mon­ey from Rome to Jerusalem ought to be in the fore­front; and a few more months until I set­tled on one mem­ber of the del­e­ga­tion to focus on. But it was the sight of the cheer­ful New York mail­men that helped me take the deci­sive step.

We left the restau­rant. I cast a glance at the oth­er side of the street, and saw that on the sec­ond floor a restau­ra­teur named Spiro was adver­tis­ing him­self. If I were super­sti­tious, I would have con­sid­ered it a sign from heav­en that we did not go there for lunch. 

Trans­lat­ed from the Hun­gar­i­an by Ivan Sanders.

Born in 1946 in Budapest, award-win­ning drama­tist, nov­el­ist, and trans­la­tor Györ­gy Spiró teach­es at ELTE Uni­ver­si­ty of Budapest, where he spe­cial­izes in Slav­ic lit­er­a­tures. His nov­el Cap­tiv­i­ty is new­ly avail­able from Rest­less Books.

Relat­ed Content:

Born in 1946 in Budapest, award-win­ning drama­tist, nov­el­ist, and trans­la­tor Györ­gy Spiró has earned a rep­u­ta­tion as one of post­war Hungary’s most promi­nent and pro­lif­ic lit­er­ary fig­ures. He teach­es at ELTE Uni­ver­si­ty of Budapest, where he spe­cial­izes in Slav­ic literatures.

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