Blind man with sharp vision
StoddardMartin isimpressedbyafictionalforayintoclassicalterritory. JenniferLipman likesathrillingthreesome
THE PICARESQUE hero of this epic novel is a Roman Jew with slave pedigree. Through sage merchandising, his father has accumulated sufficient wealth to be able to float a loan to the spendthrift Agrippa, tipped as a future Jewish king. Via this connection, young Uri is chosen to join a delegation taking the annual Passover tribute from Rome’s Jewish community to Jerusalem.
Uri has poor eyesight, but it has not prevented him from acquiring knowledge via every scroll he can lay hands upon. He has learned also from wandering Rome’s teeming streets. But even these cannot touch the education he will receive from his experiences on the road.
Rivalries between Jew and Greek, the slyness of traders, and gullibility of peasants all play a role in his fate.
He spends time in prison, dines at palaces, engages in kibbutz-like hard labour and survives the lethal Bane which savages the most advanced Jewish community of the era, in Alexandria.
Through hard initiation in Judaea and Egypt, Uri gains fuller understanding of his people. No Jew is like another except in the eyes of the haters.
Opportunists, intriguers, wise men and the wildly naive are all represented; some are survivors, but only if luck is their friend, and Uri witnesses many horrors.
What the Creator has in mind for him allows him to return to Rome eventually. There, a semblance of order seems to have a better chance of persisting than on the outskirts of empire. Uri i s a i ded and/or subverted by the misc o nc e p t i o ns o t h e r s h a v e about him.
The assumption that he is a spy for Agrippa enabled him to meet Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate in Judaea.
Similar illusions opened doors in Alexandria with the philosopher Philo and the plutocratic alabarch (customs official).
Back in Rome, he is able to mix with Jewish elders and bankers as well as with power-brokers behind various emperors.
The world he inhabits often resembles ours of the day-before-yesterday, with destruction of nations, erection of supranational institutions, holo-
Bust of Agrippa — powerful figure and alleged spymaster — in the Louvre causts, forced migrations and the vying of mafias lurking behind almost every situation.
Uri manoeuvres. Subtlety ebbs and flows. He lives the joys and pains of the body, acquires a family, grows old.
The quotidian of his life — and that of his era — high or low, is depicted in scintillating colours; calamitous vicissitudes continue right to the end.
A favourite son is abducted and made into a eunuch; another becomes a Nazarene; a daughter marries a slave.
Uri survives Caligula, Claudius and Nero to achieve a destiny which convention prevents me from disclosing.
It is rare in our day to encounter a novel of such ambitious scope. The research involved combined with a narration of compelling drive invites comparison with the best of Leon Uris.
The translation — by Tim Wilkinson — from Hungarian seems deft: clean prose moves without apparent obstruction in English.
A book of this magnitude in such modest point-size may make the reader sympathise with Uri’s poor eyesight more than he likes. But dedication will repay effort.
This is a major work.
It is rare in our day to encounter a novel of such ambitious scope… this is a major work
Stoddard Martin is a publisher, writer and critic