Supposing that Sinbad had been not merely a resourceful trader but a sophisticated Graeco-Persian of the mid-fifth century BC; an orthodox Zoroastrian, an expert diplomat with an insatiable curiosity about alien civilizations and, in particular, about the origins of the universe; a man whose career had taken him over and beyond most of the then known world. Scheherazade would scarcely have needed the rest of the Arabian Nights in order to keep a drowsy emperor awake past execution time for the necessary years. In fact, it is dangerous to dip anywhere into this surging river of a book; the difficulty of climbing out of the current, and starting properly at the beginning, increases with every page.
Cyrus Spitama is a richer, more complex character than Vidal’s Julian the Apostate, whose authenticity was inevitably limiting. Cyrus is invented, and to excellent effect. A grandson of the monotheistic, fire-worshiping prophet Zoroaster, he witnessed his martyrdom by barbarian raiders, and heard his inspired last words. This confers on Cyrus from his boyhood up a special prestige at the Persian court; but though revering his grandfather’s sanctity, he feels no vocation for the priesthood. He remains, so to speak, a regular churchgoer; but the Greek half of his inheritance comes from his Ionian mother: practical, inventive, and at bottom profoundly skeptical. Not cynical however; like the pilgrims of Flecker’s caravan, he nurses a perennial hope that
Beyond the last blue mountain barred with snow,
Across that angry or that glimmer- ing sea,
White on a throne or guarded in a cave
There lives a prophet who can un- derstand
Why men were born….
But his golden road takes him much further than Samarkand.
As the book begins he is an old man blind with cataract, stranded most unwillingly as a Persian ambassador in Athens, dictating (on which more later) his memoirs to his great-nephew, a young man called Democritus who will later pioneer the atomic theory.
Cyrus’s youth is spent at the imperial court of Darius, whose chief wife Atossa, masterful daughter of Cyrus the Great, governs the harem, the immemorial seat of intrigue and power. Protocol of immense elaboration and dignity attends every appearance of the king. The court is the center of what looks, from Susa or Persepolis, like almost worldwide dominion. Darius, king of kings, must not admit even the existence of my comparable power. But Cyrus has talked with travelers and foreigners from the east, and east of the east. He knows there is a world elsewhere.
One day a letter arrives for Darius, written in gold leaf on red silk. It comes from an Indian rajah, proposing trade in iron and rubies and other desirable things. Darius already has a satrapy in northwest India; this letter comes from further east. In the ancient phrase of his nomad Aryan ancestors, he “dreams of cows,” meaning wealth, by trade and if possible by conquest. Cyrus eagerly accepts the mission, that of ambassador, trade envoy, and spy; perfect equipment for going everywhere and meeting everyone.
He sails coastwise to the Indus mouth. It is never absolutely clear why, making for the kingdoms of the Ganges plain, he has to take this dreadful route, or how his ship was victualed and watered on the way, that perpetual headache of ancient mariners with their tiny holds and heavy manning. It makes a good adventure; but it is when he reaches India that the book takes off with a whirr of peacock wings. Thereafter the story wanders through what seems a long, but never too long, succession of brilliant Mogul paintings, with bejeweled rajahs, nautch girls, ascetics, elephants, wars, monsoons, temples, and parricides. Cyrus proceeds from one small kingdom to another, using to our advantage his ears and eyes (since he is blind, his visual memory has had nothing recent imposed on it, and his recall is total); holding his peace when he needs to, arranging for trade caravans, extolling the greatness of his master and the verity of his grandfather, hearing music in fountain-cooled pavilions with benign old kings, treading a tightrope with bloodthirsty usurpers, and above all, the heart of his adventure, seeking the prophet who will understand why men were born.
So compartmented is even the literate person’s education today, that many such readers will learn with something of a start how worldwide was the flowering of spiritual and intellectual leaders in that amazing century. In Persia, Zoroaster; in India, Master Li and the Buddha; in China, Confucius; in Greece, Anaxagoras and, later, Socrates. A well-traveled man living to a fairly ripe age can take them all into his life span, barely missing the young Plato.
As a Zoroastrian, Cyrus Spitama is a monotheist in a dual universe. Ahura and Ahriman, the light and the dark, the Wise Lord and the Lie, are coeval and will be at war till the end of time, when the Light will triumph and the good souls who have passed the fiery river of ordeal will enter eternal bliss. To Cyrus, as to the Moslem and the primitive Christian, all other gods are devils, ministers of the Lie. But the Greek in him has given him an inquiring nature and a large human tolerance. He listens with sweet reasonableness to each of the great originals on his route; and, with persistent but ever-defeated hope, asks each the unanswerable question, “How did it all begin?”
The Jain, Mahavira, protector of all life, even the mosquito’s who sucks his blood, explains that in the cosmos “there is neither beginning nor end.” Life permeates everything. From the sand grain through infinite incarnations of plant and animal and man evolves the god, who, if he is wise, will renounce being and merge himself in the cosmos, as even man can do. But, Cyrus asks, the cosmos, how did that begin? Time, the Jain says, is an illusion.
Pursuing through varying scenes and vicissitudes his mission and his quest, Cyrus reaches Koshala, where he learns that an earlier host of his has just been strangled by his son “with that silken cord which protocol requires in the case of a deposed sovereign.” He then proceeds, with a transition typical of the book, to sit at the feet of Gautama Buddha. He is told by the Enlightened One, with gentle patience, that there is no need to know how everything began; all being is illusion, and the end of existence is to be free of it. He himself understands the nature of being and ceasing to be, of how sensation comes and goes, of how consciousness begins and ends. These things once understood, it is immaterial to know the origin of the Wheel that binds us; the wish to know will disappear with all the other attachments, and the self goes out like a flame, all suffering vanishing with it.
Meantime, in the world of temporal illusion, the Ganges is in flood; war and invasion by a tyrant threaten; but the Buddhist king has renounced all attachment, including attachment to his people. At length, from desperation rather than ambition, his son kills him in a last hope of saving the kingdom, and offers his dismembered body to the river, which accepts the sacrifice and returns into its bed. Cyrus is still left wondering how the Wise Lord and the Lie began; but some instinct suggests to him that it may be well, sometimes, to behave as if they exist.
He returns with his treaties, but without his Indian wife, to Persia, where he renews his friendship with the crown prince Xerxes, and is given his sister in marriage. At this point, we get a good deal of Herodotus, retold most entertainingly from the Persian end; and have dangled before us one of those “ifs” of history which fascinate because they could so easily have happened. What if Persia, instead of striking west, had turned east to conquer India? A question almost as tantalizing as, what if Alexander had lived to go west and tackle Rome? Palace intrigues, and the persuasions of the exiled Athenian tyrant Hippias, prevail, and Marathon follows. Cyrus feels that Darius has spent his last years on a trifling enterprise when a great one lay to his hand.
Soon after this Darius dies, Xerxes succeeds; and we are offered the intriguing theory that “pseudo-Mardos,” the alleged impersonator of Cambyses’s murdered heir whom Darius killed, was in fact no counterfeit but the real Great King. The inquiring mind may ask why, if so, Mardos never appeared in public after his accession; and how the conspirator who poisoned the tip of Cambyses’s sword could know he would accidentally cut himself with it; but never mind, Herodotus would have loved the story if it had come his way.
Two years later, Cyrus is accredited as envoy to pioneer a trade route to Cathay.
There is a terrible crossing of the Gobi desert, which only a tenth of the expedition survives. (Having seen numerous water-mirages, I must protest that nobody could try to drink from one; owing to some law of optics they go before one arrives.) Cyrus is captured and enslaved in Ch’in, which despite its name is a Mongol state on the outer fringes of the Middle Kingdom, governed by a dictator who has abolished dangerous thoughts. Cyrus narrowly escapes being retained as a curiosity on account of his fair skin which, when pinched, will actually turn red. He is rescued by an eccentric, landless duke who collects dragon bones for medicine (to the fury of paleontologists, dinosaur skeletons are still ground down for this purpose today, fetching high prices.) In due course he reaches the real civilization of the eastern kingdoms (the book has a helpful map). He finds that there has been no real, imperial Son of Heaven for centuries, but an impalpable notion of him pervades the hierarchy, because life without hierarchy seems to the Chinese the equivalent of chaos. Presently he meets Master Li, preacher of the Tao, who urges the virtue of indifference. “Don’t do…. Cast yourself into the ocean of existence…. The wise man has no ambitions, therefore he has no failures…. The Way is as calm as eternity itself.” At the end of it all, Cyrus asks how the Way. was created, but Li answers tranquilly, “I do not know whose child it is.”
Cyrus goes his way, through the wars and intrigues of petty rulers and some very good stories, till he meets Confucius. To this noble and learned son of the small gentry he is drawn at once. Confucius does not think it immaterial whether, or how, things are done. “The times are bad,” he says with irrefutable logic, “because we are not good.” To him, good manners and the ancestral rituals are the watchdogs of virtue. Like Plato a century later, he dreams of guiding the destiny of a state; like Plato, he is defeated by his own incorruptible, crusty integrity. He was not clever but wise, Cyrus concludes; cherishing the memory of their acquaintance, and of their fishing trip in an exquisite river landscape, beautifully evoked.
Returning to Persia, this time by way of India, Cyrus finds that Xerxes has carried out the second invasion of Greece, and though regretting that Salamis was something of a muddle, is pretty well satisfied at having taught the Athenians a lesson. But he is going to pieces between drink and women; his wife Amestris involves him in the horrible murder of her imagined rival; eventually he himself is murdered, and Artaxerxes succeeds. When peace with Athens is made—we are now in the time of Pericles—Cyrus is dispatched there as resident ambassador. He dislikes the restless, envious Greeks; his consolation is his philosophic great-nephew, to whom, regrettably, he dictates, not relates his tale.
We can never be sure how the Greeks actually talked. We have Aristophanes; so might a future scholar, researching after the Bomb, have P.G. Wodehouse as a source of colloquial English. Speech allows us a good deal of latitude. Thought, so much more complex than speech, is even safer. We don’t know how Greeks thought. We don’t know how we think ourselves, and the innumerable shamans who exist to tell us probably don’t know either. The interior monologue can tell us what a man believes himself to think. What we do know, though, is the kind of way the Greeks expressed themselves when they wrote, and the degree of complexity the range of their style allowed. Consequently, Cyrus Spitama himself is brilliantly realized; his amanuensis is not. It hardly matters; the conviction that one is reading an interior monologue painlessly takes over, and the compelling narrative does the rest. It is a very long time since I read a book of more than five hundred pages with no awareness of its length, beyond a wish at the end that it was longer.
To enormous research into Persian, Indian, and Chinese history, there has of course been added much fertile, vivid, and ingenious invention. It might disturb the carvers of the Persepolis reliefs, who did hands with such sensitivity, carefully putting in the manicured cuticles, and showing the courtier respectfully standing hand over mouth before the king, to learn that hands were not displayed in the royal presence. But if much-enduring old Odysseus has let his mind wander momentarily to the land of Lu, it would be unkind not to forgive him.