(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Gore Vidal’s Creation begins on the evening of what would be, according to modern reckoning, December 20, 445 B.C., when, in a Greek villa in Athens, Democritus of Abdera takes dictation from the blind Persian ambassador. Cyrus Spitama, grandson of Zoroaster, at Democritus’s urging has begun to recount the events of his life, and the reader becomes a witness to his fabulous tale, one that carries its intriguing narrator across most of the known world and through magnificent courts in Persia, India, Cathay, and the eastern Mediterranean.

Once again, Vidal has concocted historical fiction delivered from the tongue of a thoroughly engaging narrator, whose wit and insight sparkle on every page. Once again, Vidal offers a penetrating look at a historical period, penetrating because his fiction challenges his readers’ presuppositions. Instead of the traditional Greek view of fourth century events, Vidal presents the Persian interpretation. Like Vidal’s American trilogy (Burr, 1973; Washington, D.C., 1967; and 1876, 1976), where illusions about nineteenth century American democracy are routinely punctured, Creation sets about smashing the icons of Western civilization’s seemingly noble Greek heritage.

Spitama, consistently derogatory toward the Greeks, cites their eternal squabbling, backbiting, and avaricious nature as the real cause for continual conflicts with the Persian empire. In contrast, he lauds the Persians’ accomplishments: the widespread peace their empire maintains, their benevolent tolerance toward subject peoples, the relative wealth and prosperity their rule fosters, the majesty of imperial court life. Indeed, Creation presents a striking picture of the fourth century world that produced the Buddha, Confucius, Herodotus, Anaxagoras, Socrates, Pericles, Darius, and Xerxes. Among these figures Spitama strides, gathering wisdom and experience from fertile cultures and refining them into a homogenous view of his radiant age. Vidal’s account suggests essential parallels between Spitama’s age and the present, basic qualities in human events that remain unchanged over time, basic fibers in the historical weave that forever course through the fabric.

Certainly a dominant theme in Creation concerns the matter of historical perspective. The opening of the novel, with Cyrus Spitama annoyed at Herodotus’ accounts before the Athenian forum, makes the point well. Herodotus has recalled the Persian wars (or Greek wars, as Cyrus would contend) with a decidedly Greek bias, glorifying the Greek heroics and, to Cyrus’s mind, distorting the truth. (Given the chronology of the novel, Herodotus would have been a child when the events he speaks of so eloquently occurred.) His purpose, however, to inflame Greek patriotic fervor, grants him license to embellish as he chooses; his audience, no more knowledgeable than he, acquiesce in the lies, hearing what suits their temper. As Spitama by his dictation to Democritus reveals his observations of the same events, the reader begins to recognize the fragile nature of historical truth.

Creation implies that too much “history” consists of the perceptions of biased observers, overlaid with historical revisions to suit the needs of succeeding generations. The whole question of historical legitimacy depends upon the place and point in time the observer occupies, and from claims and counter claims one can always pick one’s favorite interpretations. On the one hand, Herodotus, speaking before the Greek assembly, cannot be trusted as an objective witness. On the other hand, when Spitama asserts that his account is true, based on his wider knowledge of events, his larger sphere of perception, should his words be accepted without skepticism? History serves, or can serve, the historian’s purposes; in fact, all facts surrender to the observer’s interpretation....

(The entire section is 1608 words.)