(Excerpt from a Novel)

By György Spiró

Translated from Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson


One evening Uri’s father Joseph announced furiously that Honoratus wanted to put up his idiot son of sixteen for the post of grammateus, even though he could barely write and knew no other language but Greek and could not count either. Honoratus was a rich and influential man, the owner of three tenement buildings in the Syrian quarter, and his wife was a cousin of the banker Tullius Basileus. The only sort of person who might knock Honoratus’s son off his perch was someone like Uri.
Uri said nothing, just nodded. Gaudentius, the son, was so dumb that he stood no chance of getting the job as grammateus.
Joseph smiled happily, taking Uri’s silence as a sign of agreement. He left no stone unturned; yet it was still the idiot who was named grammateus, with the favor of Annianus.
Uri relaxed. Being a notary for a hysterical archisynagogos was not such a great deal; marriage could also wait.
Then two months later, Gaudentius, Honoratus’s idiot son, died unexpectedly, having lived just sixteen years, two months, and three days, as was nicely engraved on his sepulchral plaque. Uri, in his cubbyhole, said prayers for him; he genuinely felt sorry for the blockhead and could not help it if, by the grace of the Lord, he had been seen as good-for-nothing in life.
Joseph took a new lease on life and once again started to pay visits to influential members of the assembly.
Then the influential members of the assembly, on Annianus’s advice, decided that the next son born to Honoratus should be the grammateus, and until that son was conceived and born, let the post be discharged by others, who would relieve each other every three months. Joseph was assured that Uri was highly placed on the list of these substitutes, even if he was blind as a bat. Joseph had a few salty words of his own, as a result of which Gaius Theodorus, son of Lucius Ioses, was removed from the list. From that point on, Uri was left in peace and out of harm’s way, and when he was not reading in his alcove, he sauntered over to the true Rome.*
There was much he saw and heard, and he would gladly have reported on these rambles to his father, but his father avoided talking with him. He would gladly have reported on them to his friends, but he had no friends. He was mocked on account of his physical defects, hated because he wrote, read, and calculated better than them and even so did not work.
He would have carried on with these pleasant, solitary wanderings for the rest of his life, scraping by on handouts from the state and his patron, dipping into books, parasitically, carefree and undemanding, had something not happened.
Unexpectedly, from one day to the next, unrest broke out over the way the Praetorian prefect Sejanus was deposed for his despotic rule as the plenipotentiary representative of Tiberius Caesar, who was living on the island of Capri (that is to say, his rule over the Latin wealthy was despotic; he did not trouble Jews, because they were simply of no interest to him). Many people were seized, and the entire leadership bodyguard was replaced; indeed, they had already been hacked to pieces. Uri happened to be poking around the street of goldsmiths, the Via Sacra, near the Forum, because he liked looking at jewelry, when people started shouting and he was carried along with the crowds to the foot of the Gemonian Stairs, where the dead bodies had been laid out for public display. That was where he saw a corpse for the first time in his life, and not just one but a dozen or more, and more than one of them without a head. Uri wanted to run off, but the crowd would not permit that; indeed, he was jostled into the front row, right in front of the soldiers who were shoving the crowd back, just as the executioner and his assistants dragged an adolescent boy and a girl of about ten years old over to the steps by their hair. Both had long fair hair, perfect for dragging.
A cry went up from the crowd.
Uri was standing near the stairs, so he had a good view.
The executioner went for the boy first, who wisely chose not to protest, and with one blow his head tumbled down.
The girl, by contrast, wailed and pleaded: she did dispute that she had committed some sort of crime and should punished as a child would lawfully be punished, but she never committed a capital offense and did not deserve to lose her head.
Silence fell, the executioner hesitated.
People in the crowd bawled:
“It is forbidden to put a virgin to death!”
That was true; Uri himself was familiar with Roman law, having studied it out of his own sheer diligence, because his people were only instructed in Jewish law, at their own request and in keeping with the obliging decree of the great Augustus. Not a particularly wise decision, Uri thought to himself more than a few times, unless Augustus had cunningly wanted to ensure that no Jew could ever become a lawyer.
The executioner thought for a moment before unfastening his toga. He whipped out his member from under his loincloth and kneaded it with his right hand until it became erect. He had a large tool, half a cubit long, the glans hiding the foreskin and the whole prong looking like a horizontal long-stalked mushroom cap. The soldiers set about the girl, ripping her dress off, wrestling her down, and spreading her spindly legs apart. The executioner knelt down and slammed home his member. The young girl screeched. To a rhythmic clap from the crowd, the executioner gradually sped up his movements, his buttocks flashing white, until he roared out, trembled, threw his head back, and gasped. He pulled his tool out of the girl; it was bloodied, and he showed it off proudly to the front row of the crowd, like a triumphant army commander, the still-erect bloodied member in his right hand, his left hand pointing at it. The crowd roared with laughter, then the executioner picked up his sword and began stabbing drunkenly at the girl’s body. He slashed indiscriminately until shreds were all that was left of her, and these were then tossed and kicked onto the steps, among the others corpses.
The crowd, which until that point had egged him on enthusiastically, now fell silent. That was a bit too much, even for the Roman plebs. The executioner sensed the change in mood, swiftly wrapped his toga back in place, and raced off with his assistants.
Mutely, glumly, the crowd started to disperse. There was one beggar who even climbed the steps and started to abuse a headless corpse, as the remaining soldiers hastily threw the bodies into the Tiber.
Uri was drenched in sweat, shivering, his heart hammering, dizzy, the sweat stinging his eyes, his stomach heaving. He had wanted to avert his eyes throughout but found himself unable. There were cries of “Wait, they’re bringing Sejanus’s wife now. Let’s see her mourning,” but he took to his heels and ran as fast as he could. On his way he vomited onto his own legs. He could not remember which bridge he crossed, whether it was the Pons Aemilius or the Jewish bridge, because both led to the Jewish quarter. He huddled up in his alcove and did not budge from his place for weeks.
Nor indeed could he have shown himself, because the Elders prohibited it.
Somebody had seen him on the bridge, running home, filthy and panting, and reported it. The Elders assembled and called in his father. Joseph argued that Uri had reached the age of maturity, was unable to work, and could go wherever he pleased. The Elders, of whom there were seventy to faithfully mirror the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, gathered together very rarely, only on the most vital matters, its membership being made up of the heads of eminent families in the city’s various congregations. After protracted debate, they came to the conclusion that anyone who went about in places where reprisals were raging in these grave days and weeks was putting the entire Jewish community of Rome under threat.
“We must not get mixed up in it,” they declared. “That is a matter for the Latini, we have nothing to do with it, and we should never cross their minds. Your son put us all at risk, albeit unintentionally. He is not to leave your house until we send word.”
Joseph had no choice but to acquiesce.
Following this contretemps, he exchanged a few words with his son. He explained that while others went across the river, they had not been punished with house arrest; it was typical because, as he noted, “We are the indigenous ones here, not them, and we shall never be forgiven for that.”
He never asked what Uri had seen of the upheavals in Rome, the true one.
*The Jewish quarter was on the far side of the Tiber—the Transtiberim in Latin, which the Jewish population referred to as Far Side, as opposed to “the true Rome."
Copyright © György Spiró 2015. Translation copyright © 2010 by Tim Wilkinson.
This is an excerpt from György Spiró’s novel, Captivity, forthcoming from Restless Books on November 3, 2015. This book can be pre-ordered here.

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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