Discussion: The Far Arena by Richard Ben Sapir
There are books I've read so often, I can no longer really review them. The Far Arena has been on my every-few-years list for over 30 years. Something about the Cold War revival of a frozen Roman gladiator by an American oilman, a Soviet physician, and a Norwegian nun just draws me back, time and again.
I first encountered the novel in a friend's collection in 1985 or '86. Rarely had I been so tempted to a five-finger discount! I borrowed it again every few months for a while until I had memorized several passages—when he moved away, I knew I had to find my own copy.
I almost walked past it in a second-hand bookstore, because the cover was so different. Another publisher, plus an artist (or marketing department) that did not read past the opening chapters, lead to cover art that focused on "John Carter" buried deep in the ice.
What caught my eye, in fact, was a cover-quote from Howard Fast, author of Spartacus. "Breathtaking," it said, "you must read it." I had just re-read Spartacus, and the name grabbed my attention. Voila! I had my fix.
Even if Publius had my speed and strength and my perfect weapons and I but a club, still I would emerge alive. I had walked on arena sand, and Publius had not. ("Eugeni", Lucius Aurelius Eugenianus)
Over several moves, I lost and replaced the novel several times, most recently to add it to my Kindle. Each time, I dove into the story, rapt in a tale that addressed much more than the real life and culture of Rome, as seen through the eyes of a half-Greek slave rising to arena stardom in Rome.
Each of the other three, modern protagonists has a similar journey to make, from their first innocent encounter with the gladiator, to their struggle to understand what they really want from him, to a final arena, with a battle that will cost each of them something very precious.
Of the three, I most identify with Lew McCardle, the Texas petroleum geologist, promoted to Vice-President on the strength of his discovery in the ice. Again and again, his musings reveal a kindred spirit trapped by the Peter Principle in a conflict even his decades-past experience on the gridiron has not prepared him to face.
First, the naïve, focused engineer:
[H]e knew that good engineering did not have right angles in pipes.Then the isolated husband wondering why he had chosen his wife, instead of a hookup girlfriend from his distant past:
She had everything to recommend her but a heart. And yet that is the last thing a young man looks at.And the chip he carries on his shoulder, which may bring him down under its weight:
Oil men did not particularly like people who read books, nor did they trust them. Somehow Lew’s size, and his origins in a backwater Texas town, compensated for his reading.
Why is it people think the authorities are some form of gods with either great justice or great, cunning evil, rather than the same plodding fools they see in their daily lives, and most of all in their mirrors?And:
The purpose of an authority is to remain an authority, not dispense justice.
Re-reading it today, I find equally-cogent statements about the resurgence of Socialism and Communism, as well as identity politics:
You call people ‘masses’ when you treat them as a lump, as a hundred slaves more or less, as an army if you will. Nobody ever knew a mass or loved a mass or even paid the respect of hating a mass.Because, Eugeni muses near the end of his story:
...a man was a man because he thought, and all the cheers and all the illustrious parentage could not add one whit to any of his meaning.
It is not what one is, but what one thinks, that matters in the meaning of life. If one thinks.