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Vidal's historical novel set in the 5th century BC and narrated by Cyrus Spitama, son of a Persian prince and Greek sorceress, grandson of the prophet Zoroaster, and ambassador to the courts of India, China and Greece. Pericles, Thucydides, Sophocles and Confucius are among the book's characters.

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Book Details

ISBN: 9780349104751
ISBN-10: 0349104751
Format: Paperback
(196mm x 126mm x 29mm)
Pages: 672
Imprint: Abacus
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Publish Date: 23-Sep-1993
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Reviews

US Kirkus Review » What, if anything, is Gore Vidal up to in this long, stylish, densely busy but totally undramatic novel of the Persian Empire, circa 520-445 B.C.? Occasionally he seems to be interested in presenting shrewd alternative versions of textbook history (particularly the Greek-Persian wars), the sort of dusted-off, backroom politics he managed quite well in his American historicals (Burr, 1876). More often he settles down into comparative theology - as his narrator, a grandson of prophet Zoroaster, is somehow able to visit all the great Greek philosophers and Eastern mystics of this remarkable era (Buddha, Confucius, etc.), trying on their theories and asking them the Great Questions. But most of the time Vidal merely seems content to string along incidents, anecdotes, artifacts, and rituals of the period - in a sort of picaresque travelogue with little shape and no momentum whatsoever. We begin in Athens, 445 B.C., where old, blind Cyrus Spitama - the ambassador from Persia - is infuriated by Herodotus' version of "the Persian wars" and responds by dictating his memoirs to nephew Democritus. Cyrus remembers his early years: his special status (as grandson of prophet Zoroaster) at the intrigue-ridden court of Great King Darius, where he grows up alongside Darius' son Xerxes - who saves Cyrus' life (a raging-boar attack), leads some youthful pranks in licentious Babylon, but will always feel doomed because of Darius' usurpation (via murder) of the Persian throne. Cyrus also recalls the real cause of the Greek-Persian Wars - the meddling, opportunistic advice of ambitious Greek hangers-on at Darius' court - and his own efforts to encourage Persian expansion to the east rather than the west. And, chiefly, Cyrus recollects his journeys to the east as Persia's trade-treaty ambassador. To India in search of iron and allies ("If Darius was obliged to walk about naked with a broom in order to gain India, he would") - where he hears the credos of Gosala, Mahavira, and Buddha, witnesses a horse sacrifice, takes an Indian wife, survives a flood, and observes treacherous palace revolutions. And then, after a brief sojourn back in Persia (Xerxes' ascension), to Cathay - where he is taken prisoner, sees vast human sacrifices, meets the sage of Taoism (here called Li Tzu), and gets deeply involved in the power-struggle between a Cathayan dictator and Confucius. (Cyrus finds Confucius a "nag" and an atheist. . . but the most impressive man of all.) This brings Cyrus up to about age 40 - and then Vidal, apparently running out of energy, wraps up the next 20 years of his life (the decline and murder of Xerxes, more Greek-Persian conflict) in about 50 pages. . . plus an epilogue in which nephew Democritus suggests his atomic theory as an answer to Cyrus' eternal question: who created the world? Unfortunately, this loose theological-quest framework - what happens when a monotheistic, Heaven/ Hell believer is exposed to the gamut of Eastern philosophy or Western science? - is hardly enough to hold Vidal's meandering novel together. And though Cyrus' crisp, sarcastic tone often livens things up, the sheer onslaught of names and places and byzantine mini-plots (none of them developed with any depth or drama) will leave most readers confused and disappointed. Lots of jauntily fictionalized fact, legend, geography, and exotic cultural sociology, then - but only those with a great knowledge of (or appetite for) this theo-historical territory will want to ride along the whole length of Cyrus' journey. (Kirkus Reviews)


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Author Biography - Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal was at the centre of literary and intellectual life for half a century and wrote 'The Narratives of a Golden Age' series as well as countless bestsellers. He died on 31st July 2012.

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