Christos Tsiolkas, Damascus (#BookReview)

Book coverI have reviewed (and enjoyed) two of Christos Tsiolkas’ books since blogging – The slap and Barracuda – so I was of course interested when Allen & Unwin sent me his most recent release, until, that is, I saw its subject matter. Biblical history, or historical fiction set in biblical times, are not really big go-to areas of interest for me. However, it was Tsiolkas so, finally, when its turn came, I dived in.

What did I find? I hadn’t read reviews, but I had heard that it was pretty violent, and it certainly is in places. Indeed, it starts with the stoning of a woman – but it wasn’t gratuitous or dwelt on. The actual stoning was over in a couple of sentences, and, given Tsiolkas is a serious writer, I decided to trust that he was going somewhere interesting.

Damascus – the title referencing Saul’s (Paul’s) epiphany regarding Christ on the road to you know where – uses the story of Saul, his acolytes, and people he knew, to explore the first few generations of Christians and, through them, the foundations of Christianity. The media release which accompanied my copy says that the novel “explores the themes that have obsessed Tsiolkas as a writer: class, religion, masculinity, patriarchy, colonisation, exile.” Class is the first one to raise its head in the book, and is the one that encouraged me to keep going, because the book reminds us of Christ’s teachings about equality. A few refrains run through the novel, but the first one that captured my attention was “The first will be last, and the last will be first”. It is this teaching, this original Christian belief, that most infuriated Christianity’s opponents. That slaves, for example, should be treated as equal, should sit down at the table with others, was an affront. Given Christianity’s problematic history, I loved being reminded of this fundamental point.

The book, for me, explores two main issues. One is this Christian value of equality – accepting all people as worthy of love and attention. It dominates the first part of the book. However, another issue also raises its head fairly early – through another refrain that ends with “Truly, he is returning” – the Christian belief in the Resurrection. This theological concern occupies much of Saul’s thinking and dominates the book’s ending. In Angela Savage’s YVWF conversation with Tsiolkas, he said that he doesn’t believe Christ was resurrected. He doesn’t believe in an eternal kingdom, but that finding how to live a good life has to be worked out here and now. He therefore chose to include the character of Thomas, the doubter from the Gospel of John, to suggest another direction in which the church could have gone. His Thomas appears in the novel as the apocryphal twin of Jesus, thus giving flesh to the dichotomy between these two world views. This dichotomy is also neatly embodied in the love another of the book’s main characters, Timothy, has for both Saul and Thomas.

So, these were the two themes that kept me interested in the book, but what about the actual experience of reading it? Like many Tsiolkas’ novels, it is a multiple (or “roving”) point-of-view novel. It has a complex structure, comprising two chronologies, as you can see in the following list of the book’s parts:

  • Saul I 35 Anno Domini
  • Hope Lydia, Antioch 57 A.D.
  • Saul II 37 Anno Domini
  • Faith Vrasas, Rome 63 A.D.
  • Saul III 45 Anno Domini
  • Love Timothy, Ephesus 87 A.D.
  • Saul IV 57 Anno Domini

One chronology tells the life, thoughts and inner conflict of Saul, while the other explores the impact of Saul on others. Lydia appears in the biblical book of Acts as the first woman Saul brings to the new religion; Vrasas is his jailer in Rome and has a hatred of those he describes as “death-worshippers”; and Timothy, his companion in the Bible, had a pagan Greek father and a Jewish mother and so embodies, Tsiolkas said, “between world-ness”.

All this is rather complex, and if you don’t know your biblical history you need to concentrate hard on who is who, and where they are going, on the various belief systems and their suspicion if not hatred of each other. You also need to go with Tsiolkas’ view of Saul as a flawed man struggling with his own temptations, his lusts, pride and envy. Tsiolkas’ Saul is a man not a paragon, one who struggles even as he tries to bring the new religion to people on his travels. Here he expresses guilt over his love for Timothy:

Saul falls to his knees on the stony ground. He is sin, he is evil. The storm inside him rages and scorns. He will never conquer the serpent that coils around his loins–its poison floods his heart and mind. What arrogance to believe he is loved by the Lord! How vain to think that he has been chosen by the Saviour. (p. 264)

Inner conflicts like this are well-known, I believe, to Christians.

One of the major joys in reading this book is the characterisation. Lydia, whose first baby is abandoned on the mountains because she is an unwanted girl, is a powerful, but moving character who shares her life as a wife in a seemingly typical merchant family before she takes to the mountains herself. Vrasas, on the other hand, is a brutal character. His section is called, ironically, “Faith”. His faith is a brutal one, and his section contains some of the most brutal scenes in the book, starting with a sacrifice. The aforementioned Timothy, who loves both Saul and Thomas, is a particularly engaging character. His section, “Love”, contains another brutal scene, the punishment of a Jesus-follower by a pagan cult. Timothy, in a way, helps resolve the theological conflict between Saul and Thomas. He sees, I think, the essence of what they both believe. He comes to realise that the point is not the second coming, the cataclysm – though he believes it will come – but the love and hope that are conveyed in the Christian message.

Now, as you have probably realised, Tsiolkas, being Tsiolkas, does not hold back in his graphic descriptions of the brutality of the times. This is not a namby-pamby story but a gritty, mucky, one. It will offend some people in its physicality and viscerality, and it will offend others for its perspective on some much-loved biblical characters, but it is also suffused with one of the main metaphors of Christianity, light. When Saul is grappling with his conversion, “he marvels at the solace of light, the joy it brings him”. It’s a hard-won conversion. At one stage, conflicted by what Ananias’ group is saying, he prepares “to condemn the wicked circle” only to feel “that the light has gone.” Gradually, Ananias teaches Saul to see that Yeshua’s “words were a light” and that this light helps his followers shed darkness, hate, bitterness, cruelty. Light metaphors recur throughout the novel, sustaining characters whenever they feel its presence.

Damascus is not a novel for everyone. Its confronting exploration of the early Christians, alongside the complex history of times that many of us are no longer familiar with, make it a challenging read. However, I related to Tsiolkas’ heart, which aligns with Saul’s “misery at what the world is. At what the world can do”. If only we could recover those original Christian values of loving our neighbour, of treating every person we meet with equal respect, so much of that misery would be gone.

Christos Tsiolkas
Crows Nest: Allen  & Unwin, 2019
ISBN: 9781760875091

Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin

43 thoughts on “Christos Tsiolkas, Damascus (#BookReview)

  1. I’m in two minds about reading this one. On the plus side – it’s Tsiolkas. And I really enjoyed hearing him in conversation with Angela Savage. Against – I have no understanding of the bible (I have no religious education or belief system in my family), and Damascus seems daunting…and maybe not that interesting for me… I did notice that it’s available as an audiobook and wondered whether listening to it might be a way in.

    • Ah, Kate, this is a hard one. I grew up going to Sunday School so have a good basic grounding in the basic biblical stories, though I haven’t been to church now for decades. I think it would be a bit of a hard read if you know none of it, but I may be wrong about that.

      An audiobook could very well be a good way in.

      • I’m weighing in here because I used to listen to audio books a lot when I was commuting, and honestly, I found them harder to follow if there were many characters, time shifts and complex issues, because you can’t just flick back a page or two, or add a sticky note to help you go back to the important bits.

        • I did wonder that Lisa, but I’m not experienced enough at audiobooks to have made that call. My experience is, probably, that simple, straightforward books are best for audio, but I’ve only listened to about 5 in the last 5 years.

  2. Oh I do wish this were available in the US but it’s not here in any format I would have liked both Kindle and Audible because I have to read and listen at the same time with complex books. Although I’ve not been a church-goer since childhood, I’m still pretty familiar with the Bible and I very much enjoy Bible history (I love all history but …). Thanks –

    • I spent the first eighteen years of my life going to church, and the last couple of those arguing in support of atheism with my equally committed christian friends, but I’m an adult now and all that fairies at the end of the garden stuff interests me not at all.
      The bible as history is sometimes interesting but the bible as religion is not my thing at all and I am surprised and disappointed that Tsialkos has gone there.

      • I’m like you Bill. I had a church-going upbringing, until I was 17 or 18. I stopped teaching Sunday School at 17 when I realised I wasn’t believing what I was teaching. However, I like to be open-minded about other people’s faith, and clearly Tsiolkas has some. But, regardless, I think you can read this book with an eye to the Christian underpinnings of our culture’s values, and see Tsiolkas exploring what some of those were and what’s happened to them.

  3. I’m like you as I grew up going to Sunday School but haven’t been to church for decades. The character of Saul/Paul does interest me, so I’m going to look out for this book.

  4. Never been a Tsiolkas fan, as The Slap alienated me from reading anything more. Guess I just don’t want to spend ‘reading’ time with domestic discord. As I’m also not a Christian and my Catholic upbringing screwed my head as it’s done to so many other people, this book is about as far from being an appealing prospect as poss.
    But I remain a fan of excellent book reviewing !

      • See, murder is far away from reality, for me; whereas domestic discord pretty close to home in my childhood.
        Have I said what an escapist I am ? ..oh, I have. OK then .. [grin]

        • Yes, I thought you would say “escapism”. Me? I find it weird that murder is escapism! It’s horrible M-R. People KILL each other! Or, hadn’t you noticed? Haha!

          Seriously though, I understand.

  5. A wonderful read thanks. The book is sitting waiting to be read here. I deeply admire Tsiolkas’ work and I was particularly looking forward to this one. I hadn’t started it because I get guilty about flagrantly sitting down to read a novel or any book, that isn’t directly related to my own writing at present. And yet, reading this review I realised just how much it is in fact – with such universal themes, values and conundrums – deeply related to not only to what I am currently writing about (15th century) but profoundly relevant to these appalling times we are living now. I’m going to start on it at once!

  6. Having heard a little about the volume of research that proceeded the writing of Damascus I felt a little daunted that it could be too dense for me and therefore alienating. Gladly this assumption proved wrong. As soon as I finished Damascus I wanted to read it again immediately (wanted to but so far haven’t). I loved it: the themes it explores; the questions it raises; the writing.

    As an aside I just finished Sue Monk Kidd’s The Book of Longing, a fictionalised account of Jesus’ imagined wife Ana. Written with the intention of giving historical women a voice it makes the perfect companion book to Tsiolkas’ Damascus.

    • Oh thanks Julie. I felt daunted too, but was very glad I read it. I think there’s so much more I could have teased out about the content and writing but I hope I got the gist. Sue Monk Kidd’s book sounds interesting. The only women’s perspective I’ve read on biblical days is Anita Diamant’s The red tent.

  7. Thanks for the great review, Sue. I’m halfway through Damascus and I’m particularly enjoying the way the book is a fresh, well-researched take on the first century of the church, with none of the cliches and simple images that have developed over the centuries. The class struggles and religious prejudice are so well drawn. And I really appreciate that Paul is a messy, struggling character. I haven’t made it to the end yet, but I’m glad to hear that Jesus isn’t resurrected; I’m with Tsolkias there.

    • Thanks Robyn. The beginning really got me in. Loved the opening, and Lydia’s voice. The research hangs lightly – to be cliched – doesn’t it. I’m glad you are liking what I liked about it.

  8. I went to the Perth book launch of this one (it was held in Fremantle) and I plan to read it this winter. However, like Kate, I have no religious education / belief — albeit I am fascinated by Catholicism (the theatre of it) and Islam (the devotion of it, all that praying!) — so am unsure how I will fare with it. But I love Tsiolkas’ work and his controversial/hard hitting style and think it would be remiss of me to ignore this one on the basis I might find it hard work.

  9. Hello Whispering Gums,
    Thanks for your highly accomplished review, I am really in awe of your book reviewing abilities. Your review has inspired me to pick up the book again and finish it. I was enjoying it quite a lot but it is, you are right, not an ‘easy read’.
    Perhaps when I have finished I will come back here and make another comment.

  10. Pingback: 2020 ARA Historical Novel Prize Longlist | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  11. Pingback: 2020 ARA Historical Novel Prize shortlist | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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