Reviewed: Christos Tsiolkas, Damascus, Allen & Unwin, 2019
In an interview that followed the publication of his 2013 novel Barracuda, Christos Tsiolkas declared that he ‘learnt to feel Australian by travelling to Europe’.¹ It’s a sentiment perhaps best expressed in Dead Europe (2005), a novel in which to be Australian is repeatedly compared to naivety or childishness. Such expressions suggest that for Tsiolkas, we can only understand Australian national identity in relief, an idea hearkening back to the earliest definitions of the nation made by its colonisers and continuing throughout Australia’s migrant and multicultural history.
In this context, Tsiolkas’s latest offering, Damascus, makes sense as part of his oeuvre. In this novel, a similar assertion is made about the Romans—like the Australians of Dead Europe they are ‘a new people … a young people, and they have the manners and pursuits of children. And the cruelty of children’. It suggests the childishness of a people as a failure of responsibility at best and active unkindness at worst, rather than as the more typical symbolic association of the child with innocence. In a recent interview with Jane Sullivan, Tsiolkas also makes the point that since contemporary ‘politics are so fraught … to go back to the ancient world was a way of being able to reflect on who we are as humanity without being caught up in these politics’.² If, then, it is only by ‘travelling to Europe’ that Tsiolkas came to understand this aspect of being Australian, then it follows that travelling to the past, travelling to Damascus, on Tsiolkas’s own Damascus Road, as it were, might hold the same value.
Many readers might be surprised by the narrative’s focus: a retelling of the experiences of the apostle Paul (formerly Saul) and his conversion to and preaching of the earliest forms of Christianity. It’s a story that seems to be literally worlds away from Tsiolkas’s previous work, all of which deal with the social and political matters of contemporary Australia. But it is in Damascus’s broader themes that the novel finds resonance with its predecessors. Although the novel’s topic is the birth of Christianity, its focus is on Christianity as a discourse of equality and community, even a socialist doctrine, constructed in relief to the violence and extreme inequality of the slave culture in which it emerged. For these disempowered and desperate populations—slaves enduring a lifetime of abuse, ‘imperfect’ children abandoned on a hillside to die, and even all of those simply terrified by the wrath of the angry and punishing gods they were obliged to worship in daily rituals—Christianity provides a logic of love, care and forgiveness.
Thus its ultimate promise, repeated throughout the novel, is the ‘dangerous and seditious’ claim that ‘In the kingdom to come the last will be first and the first will be last’. Jesus offers hope to the disempowered, as one character puts it: ‘On that hill outside Capernaum he preached that it was us—the enslaved, the poor, the beggars, the prisoners, the lepers, the fallen—it was us who were most loved by the Lord’. It is a utopian vision, as I have argued elsewhere, which depends on an understanding of the other, rather than on the preservation of the self.³ Or, as Tsiolkas observes in the ‘Author’s Note’ that concludes his work, ‘I hear Paul’s whisper in every contemporary ideology that wishes to change the world … I am grateful that his mission gave us the great insights into justice and compassion that were forged over millennia by the prophets of Judaism’.
As in most of his earlier novels, Damascus ends with this kind of explicit vision of hope, as Paul calls and prays to the ‘light of the sun and the light of the sky and the light of the sea’. Just as when the child Danny is held aloft by his father on a sun-bathed beach in Barracuda, or Richie laughs with his friends at a music festival in The Slap, or even as Ari dances by the water in the final shot of Ana Kokkinos’s Head On, the film adaptation of Tsiolkas’ first novel Loaded, light is figured in Damascus as the locus of salvation and kindness.
Although our cultural knowledge of Paul means that we anticipate his violent death, Tsiolkas’s refusal of it at the end of his narrative emphasises the reach of this message into the present. ‘[H]e who has faith, retains eternal youth’, Søren Kierkegaard has it in the novel’s epigraph. Damascus ultimately offers up an alternative perspective on youth to that proposed about the Romans, or about Australians in Dead Europe. Instead, perhaps, the light of salvation permits a kind of immortality that might in turn allow gestures of generosity and kindness.
Tsiolkas’s is not the only novel focused on St Paul to be published in 2019: Jay Parini’s The Damascus Road is a work of historical fiction dealing with the life of the same man. Where Parini primarily focuses on Paul’s piety, however, Tsiolkas finds interest in his transformation, in the journey that expands beyond the Damascus Road itself, using his path of transition and revelation as a means of commenting on political and social responsibility in the present. For this reason, ultimately, Damascus might be seen to raise questions about the very nature of Australian literature.
For such a work to be produced by a writer at the top of his game, a writer fundamentally associated with questions about Australia and its contemporary society and politics, is, as I noted, surprising. But it also casts his earlier work in a new light, positioning all of his narratives as something more like world literature, stories that consider not only Australia on its own terms but also the nation’s place in the world. By (re)constructing such global mythologies and histories, Tsiolkas not only seeks to explore the alternatives to such grand narratives, but also to position contemporary Australia in relation to these. It is, then, in the personal story of a very public figure that we might find understanding and connection, not only to him but to each other. •
Jessica Gildersleeve is Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of Southern Queensland. She is the author of Christos Tsiolkas: The Utopian Vision (Cambria, 2017).
1. Dennis Altman, ‘Christos Tsiolkas: “I learnt to feel Australian by travelling to Europe”’, Guardian, 12 November 2013, <https://www.theguardian.com/books/australia-culture-blog/2013/nov/12/christos-tsiolkas-interview-barracuda-australian>.
2. Jane Sullivan, ‘Christos Tsiolkas confounds expectation with Damascus’, Sydney Morning Herald, 25 October 2019, <https://www.smh.com.au/culture/books/christos-tsiolkas-confounds-expectation-with-damascus-20191017-p531m6.html>.
3. Jessica Gildersleeve, Christos Tsiolkas: The Utopian Vision, Cambria, Amherst, NY, 2017.