As Vidal says in his introduction to this edition,
If nothing else, this narrative is a sort of crash course in comparative religion and ethical systems
Although heís a Zoroastrian, our autobiographical narrator Cyrus Spitama generally represents the Judeo-Christian linear view Ė that we each live once and will meet the monotheistic ĎWise Lordí to be judged when we die. To take us beyond a dry text book analysis, Vidal has run with the enticing possibility of someone living in an age where he could have actually met, among others, Socrates, the Buddha and Confucius. So Vidal has Cyrus, for example, in dialogue with the latter two.
Vidal has done his background reading so the conversations are informative, and more palatable than much of the texts he would have gleaned his material from (that being said, you can knock over Confuciusí very readable Analects in a couple of hours yourself and be that much closer to the source). Moreover thereís the pleasure of the fictional (but believable) characters heís created around the history and teaching.
Still, if thatís why youíre reading the book, youíd be better off skipping all but about fifty pages of this door-stopping 700 pager. Vidal patiently or, depending on your perspective, indulgently devotes most of the book to evoking possible versions of historical people and settings in Persia, Greece, India and China in the fifth century B.C. I suspect this would be particularly enjoyable (or inflammatory) for readers who have recently been working with sources such as Herodotus, as Vidalís Spitama is consciously set up as an alternative voice. However, if, like myself, the various famous ĎĖoclesesí that fly by are barely more than recognisable names, Vidalís speculations arenít that arresting; if you were reading this book purely as a fiction youíd wonder why this parade of minor characters are given stage time Ė the cameos only work if youíre aware of the celebrity already.
And thatís a significant point Ė would this book be a worthy read if the faces werenít so famous?
Well, itís not a labour to read. Vidal is an able writer, Spitama is an engaging character with interesting alternate values to our popular ones, and his commentary on other views of his time are stimulating. However I doubt that I could recommend the book to anyone without a prior interest in and knowledge of a significant portion of the history, philosophy and religion that it engages with. Politicians and kings take up a major part of the narratives, but these are the recollections of a cynical old man, and more often summaries rather than developed relationships. We donít really have a lot of affection for most of the sketched characters Ė partly because there are just so many of them. Spitama himself generally consciously distances himself from those around him. He has friendships, but, perhaps just in the way that they are narrated, they rarely involve our emotions over our mind.
This is doubly so for the action. Cyrus describes the often dangerous and violent times and places heís lived through, but there is not a moment of suspense or drama. For example he drolly skips over his life-threatening adventure in having to follow a caravan through a dangerous and unfamiliar exotic foreign land, avoiding bandits and a ruthless pursuing police/military force for several days. Lois Líamour would spun out that week into an entire thrilling novel: Vidal reduces it to a throwaway sentence. Sure, Vidal is never trying to write a thriller, however I do think itís a weakness that when undeniably gripping events turn up he canít narrate them in a way that brings out the extreme emotions that would have been there at the time.
A telling fact is that while I read this book, in between times I read four others. This is unusual for me: Iím normally pretty faithful to the one text as I go through it Ė however the other books I happened to come across along the way (e.g. a Douglas Adams, a David Lodge) immediately got me in, and when I went to pick up a book I wanted to read the others, but I could take or leave Creation. It was the choice between an undeniably scholarly piece OR something that would make me laugh and/or feel driven to find out what happened in the next chapter. The two donít have to be mutually exclusive, so, yes, I suppose thatís my essential reservation about a very capable and interesting book.
(initially late 80s?)