Into the Unbounded Night by Mitchell James Kaplan recounts the fictional tale of a girl from a British tribe. She’s brought to Rome as a slave after seeing her village sacked by General Vespasian. A “barbarian” in a “civilized” world, Aislin struggles to comprehend Roman ways. From a precarious hand-to-mouth existence on the streets, she becomes mistress to a wealthy senator, but their child is born with a disability, rendering him unworthy of life in the eyes of his father and other Romans.
Imprisoned for her efforts to topple the Roman regime, Aislin learns of an alternate philosophy from her cellmate, the Judean known today as Saint Paul. As Rome burns in the Great Fire, he bequeaths to her a mission that will take her and her son to Jerusalem. There, Yohanan, son of Zakkai, strives to preserve the tradition of Hillel against Zealots advocating a war of independence. Vespasian is sent to crush the revolt, as Yohanan and Aislin seek not just survival, but preserving the lifeblood of their culture.
I was delighted to speak with Mitchell about his epic new novel, Into the Unbounded Night. To view my video interview with Mitchell please click here.
What inspired this story?
The question arose in my mind: How did this happen? How did Judaism and Christianity come to diverge so much that by the Middle Ages they were seen as antithetical? The question kind of took over my life. I wasn’t originally thinking there was a novel there, but then these characters started speaking to me.
Into the Unbounded Night is an epic novel. As your earlier book, By Fire, By Water, is also fairly epic. Both have elements of culture, religion, and they span a wide geography. What drives your interest in epic stories?
I’m obsessed with identity, and I believe that identity is the crux of our problems, whether today, in the first century, or in the fifteenth century.
You introduce three mind-blowing theological ideas. The first is referring to Jesus as Joshua. Why did you make that decision?
The name in Hebrew is Yehoshuah and it’s the same for the Joshua of the Old Testament and Jesus of the New Testament. At some point, going from Greek into Latin and from Latin to the King James Bible, it becomes “Jesus”.
When Jesus lived, people expected that Jesus as the Messiah—in the sense that Joshua of old had been their Messiah—would be a military conqueror. Another interesting decision you make is referring to God as an entity.
God is referred to in many different ways In the Old Testament—feminine and masculine in the Hebrew. It’s very hard to say whether God is a he or a she, despite how spin doctors through the ages may have wanted to interpret it.
The most common word for God in the Old Testament is Elohim, which literally means, The Gods—plural. The unity and indivisibility of God are the most important distinguishing characteristics of Judean monotheism. It’s absolute sacrilege to talk about God in the plural. And yet, that is how God is spoken of in the Hebrew Bible. Why do you think that is? Because Elohim, the plural of the noun is the only way to spell that noun in Hebrew without giving it a gender. In the novel, I had to choose between referring to God in the classical ways as a he or she, or as an “it”. I decided “it” was the closest thing I could do.
Your writing hooked me from its first pages. Villagers in Britain dancing around a bonfire, an unending constellation of stars, then a skull speaking to one of the characters! Did the imagery come to you first or the writing?
The imagery comes first. I lie in bed at night and think about the next day’s scene, and start visualizing it. A lot comes from research, but a lot comes from somewhere else.
As far as the skull, this culture in Albion—the Celtic culture—they did preserve skulls. These skulls were an important part of their lives. That wove itself into my mind’s images as I wrote the book.
How did pagan Roman civilization most differ from Judaeo-Christian values?
What came into my mind as I was lying in bed with all these questions about everything I’d read, was the central issue that really distinguished these two populations profoundly was the holiness of life. In Rome, if a child was born with defects it was placed out in the wild. Like Romulus and Remus who were raised by wolves, the gods would protect the child if they had a reason to. But in most cases, babies with defects died barring human help.
The tradition of Israelites in terms of the value of life were categorical: life is holy, period. Even the lives of infants who were viewed as defective—and this is in the Talmud, which dates to this period. Never, ever is there a case of documented Jewish history of this period where an infant is sacrificed, or placed in nature and allowed to die.
That’s when my protagonist began to form in my mind: a pagan woman on the streets of Rome with a child viewed as defective. She’s trying to protect him and doesn’t quite know where to turn.
“Unbounded” is an apt title. I liken your style to “writing with the safety off”. You give us the perspective of many different characters—people, an angel, and you even take us into the mind of an animal! How did you come to write so unloosed?
The goat that is sacrificed is considered the most beloved, next to a human child. People then didn’t think about animals the same way we see them today, like a slice of beef on plastic in a supermarket. It’s not a living thing; the cows are all on a farm somewhere; we don’t interact with them.
So for you, writing the goat’s perspective was simply channeling the thoughts of another beloved creature.
Yeah. It’s just part of the family. The same with angels. They were a part of the world, as people experienced it in those days.
Honestly, as I was writing this book, I’ve never been a mystical person. I take the world of our waking perceptions very seriously. But I started to believe in angels. I started to really feel their presence as I was immersed in this way of relating to the universe. And I still do. Writing this book changed me.
What words of wisdom do you have for aspiring novelists?
Words have power. Imagery has power. As you write, and continue writing over years and refine your approach to writing, developing your style and the way you think about what writing’s supposed to do, you find what moves you as much as it possibly can. There’s no way to pin down what the criteria are, but you know what’s good and what isn’t.
When I know that I’ve written a good sentence, I just know it. If it isn’t there, it needs more work.
Do you feel you’ve accomplished your goals with this book?
My objective with Into the Unbounded Night from the very beginning was I wanted to write a poem. I wanted to write a novel that was like a poem. Every sentence as clean as it could be, as refined, as pure, and that the whole thing would fit together in a suggestive, connotative way full of imagery. I can’t say whether I’ve achieved that, but this novel absolutely reflects my sensibility of trying to get things right.