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

Leslie Cannold, The book of Rachael

Bookcover Leslie Cannold The book of Rachael

The book of Rachael (Cover image: Courtesy Text Publishing)

For someone who doesn’t seek out historical fiction, I seem to have read a lot of it lately. Leslie Cannold’s The book of Rachael is the third historical novel I’ve read in succession – and it’s the third with an author’s afterword/postscript, which suggests to me some uncertainty in the writers about historical fiction. Tansley quoted Doris Lessing’s statement that fiction is “better at” the truth than the factual record. Brooks addressed concerns that the imagined record might be interpreted as fact. Cannold takes a different tack. Her book, like Brooks’, involves an imagined heroine telling a story about some “real” historical people, in her case Joshua (Jesus) and Judah (Judas). Cannold writes:

I wonder now whether it really makes sense to call this sort of writing historical fiction. Can setting entirely fictional characters to roam in the landscape of a multi-authored, oft-redacted religious tale really be described as historical? Not if the criteria include scholarly examination of verifiable, chronologically ordered events. So, I don’t think of “The book of Rachael” as historical fiction. I think of it as the bringing to life of a fictional character by evoking the time and place in which the character’s story is set. In “The book of Rachael” I have set the fictional sisters to roam across the historicised terrain of the gospels.

Hmm … I’m not going to get into definition discussions here. It is what it is, regardless of what we call it, and in this case it’s a first person story of Rachael, the invented sister of Jesus and wife of Judas. The rest as they say is (more or less) history … at least as far as the Jesus and Judas story goes. But, of course, there’s more to it than this. Cannold creates a whole life for Rachael from her childhood in Nazareth, as the second daughter of Yosef and Miriame, to her life post-Crucifixion. She’s a girl out of her time – something even her rather hard mother recognises (“Oh Rachael … how hard the world is for you”). She chafes under the strictures of being female (learning “in no uncertain terms what it meant to be a girl”). Like Brooks’ Bethia she wants to learn and so she listens in to her brothers’ lessons when she can. Also like Brooks’ Bethia, she channels some of her intelligence and curiosity into studying to be a healer, as an apprentice of the old crone Bindy. Then she meets Judah, angry young rebel to the gentler, more humble Joshua, and the book seems to shift a little on its axis.

Leslie Cannold was named one of Australia’s top twenty public intellectuals in 2005, and this year she was named Australian Humanist of the Year. She’s an academic, activist and ethicist with particular interest in women’s rights. She wrote The book of Rachael because, she said, “what kind of world painstakingly records the names and stories of important people’s brothers but not their sisters”. She wanted, in other words, to place women in the history, much like Anita Diamant wanted to do in The red tent, but fiction is not her usual métier and I think it shows.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s an entertaining read, and her evocation of the times, her well-researched imaginings of how women’s lives went are engaging and engrossing, particularly in the first half of the novel. But, the writing is often forced. I’m never quite comfortable with first person narrators who describe their own behaviour in terms that are usually used by a third person, such as “sobbing as if my heart would break” and “hissing like a cat, I …”. The romance with Judah is also laid on a bit thick. Almost every time they meet – he is often away fighting – sex is explicitly described. I don’t think I’m prudish, but it did start to read more like a boddice-ripping romance than serious historical fiction. Here’s an example:

Judah blocked my mouth with a kiss. The sort of kiss that involved him sucking my lower lip until my breasts heaved and my skin seemed to sparkle like stars. The sort of kiss where I might forgive him almost everything.

This is just one of many episodes. “Enough already”, I wanted to cry. Yes, feminists are women too, but passion can be conveyed so much better through a little restraint. Just look at Jane Austen, whom Cannold must love, given her sneaky tribute: “It is a truth widely known that the desire of the amorously infatuated to hear their lover’s name, to speak it and hear it spoken aloud, make them tiresome company”.

There are, however, some beautiful descriptions, such as this:

Of these years, little is left to me by way of coherent memory. Instead, what I recall is like a mosaic, vividly coloured tiles affixed at different points on a large white wall: discrete scenes of colour and movement floating in a sea of empty whitewashed space.

Cannold handles the complex stories surrounding Jesus (Joshua) with a lovely subtle restraint, neither labouring their miracle aspects nor discounting them. I don’t want to give away the end – beyond what everyone knows of the biblical history. I found the conclusion for Rachael moving and redemptive but it didn’t have the feminist punch I expected from the way the novel started. Does that matter? Perhaps not. I’d love to hear what others say.

The book of Rachael
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2011
ISBN: 9781921758089

Review copy supplied by Text Publishing