Though “epic” may be the technically correct term (in that it is Homeric in its scope), the word does not do justice to Gore Vidal’s spectacular and monumental novel Creation. Set primarily in ancient Persia during the reigns of Darius, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes, Creation combines the scale and vision of Homer’s Odyssey with the intimacy of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. The narrative is presented as the autobiography of Cyrus Spitama, half-Persian, half-Greek, grandson of the prophet Zoroaster and bosom friend of the Crown Prince and future Great King, Xerxes. It spans his long life, from his birth in a Zoroastrian cult, through his entry into the Persian court, his ambassadorships to India, China, and Greece, and finally his death at seventy-five.
Classical literature often has a distinctly foreign feel, but Vidal makes the ancient world seem real and near as few authors have done. He writes not as a modern man looking at this 2500-year-old culture through a modern lens, but as a Persian noble for whom this setting was modern. Cyrus is unburdened by the baggage of Western cultural norms and Vidal’s knowledge of future history, giving the reader the distinct and rare sensation of exploring the ancient world as a native, rather than a tourist.
During his travels, Cyrus meets figures such as the Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tsu, and Socrates (he doesn’t find the latter particularly impressive); he visits the hanging gardens of Babylon, where he watches the teenaged Xerxes seduce an adolescent temple priestess; he is married to a 12-year-old Indian princess; and he is kidnapped and sold into slavery in China. His journey spans nearly the entirety of the known world, and he reflects on each adventure with a mix of dry humor, the detachment that comes with the passing of decades, and the nostalgia of old age.
Creation is no light undertaking (my paperback copy is nearly 600 pages of seemingly microscopic font), yet as I neared its end, I found myself dreading the inevitable farewell to Cyrus and his devoted stenographer Democritus. Like the end of a long and full vacation in a foreign country, I wished I had time to see just one more sight, meet just one more character. Barring that, I plan to dive deeper into Vidal’s body of work; if his other novels are half as engaging as Creation, it will be time well spent.