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Benita Kane Jaro

Door in the Wall, The
Permanent Press, 1994
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Marcus Caelius Rufus (an actual historical person) arrives at a seaside town in Italy in 48 BC leading a small unit of irregular infantry. The civil war between Caesar and Pompey is in progress but Rufus refuses to state his own position. He declares martial law in the town and takes hostages but says only that he is for the legitimate government - never saying which government that is. He begins writing his "final report" to we know not whom. This "report" is the substance of the novel. It covers his whole life, from a rough and unhappy Roman childhood in a small Italian town, to his adolescent apprenticeship in law to Cicero, and through all of his ambitions and adventures in Rome and in Spain, leading up to his precarious position by the sea. Rufus becomes involved with Julius Caesar, who is gradually climbing to higher and higher heights of power. It is Caesar and his destruction of the Roman Republic which are the real subject of the story. We see Caesar manipulating the Senate and the Plebeian assembly, buying the loyalty of soldiers, maneuvering into and out of alliances, patronizing hundreds of young men like Rufus, distributing favors, gathering support, and imposing obligations far and wide. Little is said about Caesar for the nine years of his campaigns in Gaul and Britain. Instead we see Rufus pursuing his own ambitions at Rome, living above his means on borrowed money, doing favors for powerful men, seducing women, leading a selfish life. He is successful in the law courts and is elected tribune. He represents Caesar in his struggles with the Senate. Then Caesar returns and crosses the Rubicon. Pompey and the Senate flee, and the civil war begins. There is a fascinating chapter on the war in Spain. Rufus joins Caesar in the campaign there where, by a combination of brilliance, cunning and ruthlessness, Caesar overcomes his enemies. He also overcomes his friends, pushing Rufus into a degrading sexual relationship. Then they return to Rome where Rufus is made Praetor Peregrinus. But his ambitions are not satisfied and he turns against Caesar's men in Rome. They drive him out and he heads for the sea. But all is lost for him. Pompey has been beaten and killed and Caesar's troops are approaching. The Door in the Wall is not a simple novel. The characters don't attract our sympathy. We can't read it as an historical romance with a stirring hero doing good and courageous deeds. As a novel, it has its flaws. There are times, for example in the story of Rufus' childhood and in Rufus' treatment of the townspeople by the sea, when we feel that that we are being bludgeoned with contrived little vignettes whose sole purpose is to convince us that Rome wasn't like Kansas. But there are also some effective and even moving passages of good writing and sensitivity. Ultimately, The Door in the Wall struck me as a novel of social and political history. Jaro shows us the the great Roman Republic, one of the highest achievements of classical civilization, being destroyed by the ambitions of greedy men who see the Republic not as a great institution but as a worthless impediment to their pursuit of money and power. Caesar is no hero in this story. He is a man with extraordinary talent that shows in scene after scene. But that talent is devoted solely to the satisfaction of his own narrow self-interest and boundless ambition. I am not qualified to say whether Jaro's history is accurate, but it is certainly interesting and instructive for the non- specialist like me. I liked reading it. Alan Meyer AM Systems, Inc. Randallstown, MD, USA

- Alan Meyer, 12/2/2005


Permanent Press, 1994 M Caelius Rufus recounts his life in a Last Report as he is waiting anxiously for a troop of Julius Caesar's cavalry to arrive at the town of Thurii, which he has just taken over with his own rag-tag troops. His first recollection is of his involvement, at age 20, with Clodius (& Catullus) in the Bona Dea scandal, the first time he met Caesar, & he then skips back in time to his childhood, at age 7, in Interamnia & later his first meeting there with the other great man in his life, his mentor M Tullius Cicero. Kane seems to incorporate well the historical sources, especially Plutarch & Suetonius and, even more impressive, Cicero’s letters to and from Caelius. She also understands Roman politics of the time of Caesar, the vocabulary of the class structure and society in general. The result is a solidly grounded text with few problems. (She does assign a story about the mutiny of the Caesar’s Tenth legion to a different mutiny of his Ninth.) Caelius himself is an interesting character, not altogether likable but understandable. He is Caesar’s man for most of the novel (though not by the time he is narrating the story), but he also admires Cicero, though not the other conservatives. Kane, of course, uses her imagination in filling out the events of the story, but she peoples it with real historical figures and weaves together what we know (or think we know) about Caesar, Cicero, Catullus, Clodia, Antony, Pompey and others, with what one might reasonably deduce from what we know or from hints in the sources. We should not accept everything she says about the characters & events as being true, but they are all plausible. I admit that I never, based on his appearances in the Commentarii, would have seen Curio quite as Kane portrays him. but her explanation in the note at the end is reasonable. The major plot-lines are predictable if you know the history, but that does not make it less fun to read this account, and we do get a different slant on people & events by seeing them through the eyes of Caelius. Caesar emerges as a brilliant manipulator and an effective though cold politician and general. His bisexuality figures slightly more in this novel than in most about him, but it does not take over the story. Cicero comes off as warm and loyal, ever willing to help his protege Caelius & attempting to do what is right & best for the republic he loves. Pompey is portrayed as a good general but a poor politician, which is certainly right; he is also shown as a bit foolish and pompous, quite possibly also right. (After all, if you call yourself “the Great”, there must be a little something off about you.) The picture of Catullus is consistent with his poems but goes well beyond them, as might be expected in a novel by the author of The Key, which focused on the Catullus-Clodia affair. Kane uses well enough the device of a first-person narrator telling of the past in a written record as he awaits a doubtful immediate future, but, having just finished Massie's Caesar, where the same device is used, I found the repetitive cropping up of the present situation (& the reflections on what might happen) a bit annoying. However, the novel reads well, is lively, interesting and historically accurate. I recommend it, with a caveat that teachers in lower grades who might have a problem with homosexual matters in a novel should read the book before assigning it to a class. Kane is discreet in her sexual depictions, but she doesn’t gloss over them entirely. Fred Mench, Stockton College

- Fred Mench, 12/2/2005

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