Blind man with sharp vi­sion

Stod­dard­Martin isim­pressed­byafic­tion­al­for­ay­in­to­clas­si­cal­ter­ri­tory. Jen­nifer­Lip­man like­sathrillingth­ree­some

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

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

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