Sometimes, a book suprises you. I picked up Spartacus expected a straightforward telling of a fraily well-known story: a slave rises up against his masters, raises an army, and fights against the tyrannical forces of Rome until cut down in a blaze of glory. What I did not expect was a strange, cubist masterpiece that resonates across time and place, to make a profound statement on what society is and what it costs us.
The novel begins in the months after the Roman general Crassus has defeated Spartacus and put down his rebel army, and returns to the life of the eponymous character only in flashback. His story emerges through the recollections of various characters who either knew him or knew his reputation: Crassus, the above-mentioned general, who did not meet Spartacus on the field of battle but came to admire his tactics even as he abhorred his insurrection; Batiatus, the owner of a gladiator school whose scouts rescued Spartacus from a Nubian mine; Gracchus, a corpulent Roman senator, whose dealings with Spartacus, however indirect, spurred an existential crisis; David, a Jewish gladiator who fought beside and idolized Spartacus.
The narrative shifts fluidly between these characters, and is not bound by the limits of their own knowledge. We gain direct access to Spartacus’ thoughts on some occasions, even though the ostensible teller of the story whould have no knowledge of them. The result is a panoramic tale that is less about historicla accuracy—much of the occurences Fast recounts are completely lost to history, and he plays fast and loose with details even in situations where they are known—than about the creation of myth, and the way such myths can ripple through time.
Fast’s prose is sumptuous, grandiloquent, unafraid of lofty pronouncements and detours into philosohpical speculation. He manages this without growing tedious or unduly absorbed in his own musings. Rather, it captures the broader tone of the book, pulling out the few threads of fact (or assumed fact) that remain of Spartacus’ legacy, and weaving them into something wondrous and whole.
Rarely has a book so exceeded my expectation. And what makes its triumph as a work of art all the sweeter is this: Fast was forced to self-publish the book after blacklisting censors bullied every publisher in America into rejecting it. It ended up becoming a runaway best-selle,r and inspired the movie that arguably delt the deathblow to the blacklist itself. All this from a book about rebelling against impossible odds.
If that isn’t justice, I don’t know what is.