To label Christos Tsiolkas’s sixth novel ambitious seems superfluous – ambition, after all, is part of his trademark style. From the burning, youthful rage of his debut, Loaded, to the barbecue conversation-stopper The Slap, and through the stained history of Dead Europe, Tsiolkas has proved himself a heroic writer, ready to enter the fray and wrestle with intractable moral and political questions.
Damascus is a fictional account of the birth of Christianity, looking at the early generations of believers after Jesus’s crucifixion at the hands of the Romans. Shifting back and forth in time, the narrative switches between the voices of Saul of Tarsus (St Paul) – a leading figure of early Christianity and the novel’s central protagonist – and three of his contemporaries: Lydia, Timothy and Vrasas. Lydia, a convert of Paul’s and the only significant female perspective in the novel, is given a particularly moving chapter.
Paul’s tale is one of redemption. From his beginnings as a persecutor of Christians, he comes to “see the light” on the road to Damascus, becoming a convert and an apostle. But although Paul embraces an evangelical fervour for Christianity, devoting himself to spreading the word throughout the Roman Empire, he is fallible. “Doubt, that many-headed demon, is inside him and is strangling his heart, which is love, and squeezing his lungs, which are hope, and crushing his head, which is faith.” He struggles with self-loathing and is tortured by his sexual desires.
Paul’s relationship with Timothy, his young disciple and trusted companion, reveals Tsiolkas’s typical ability to dissect the complex intimacy between men. Vrasas, a retired Roman soldier employed to guard Paul while he is under house arrest in Rome, reviles their relationship, which he sees as emasculating. As he watches Paul holding audience with other Christians, Vrasas’s vicious contempt for and suspicion of these “blasphemers” is acutely rendered, but Tsiolkas also grants him a nuanced respect for Paul.
Damascus opens with an ominous line: “The world is in darkness.” Having immersed himself in the historical events of Paul’s New Testament letters, Tsiolkas has created a powerful parable of our times. He returns to his perennial concerns – masculinity, religion, colonialism, class and sexuality – and, as in all his other work, he is finely attuned to otherness. Tsiolkas has a deep understanding of the violence implicit in xenophobia, and the Roman Empire was savage and inhuman towards women, slaves, refugees and the poor. His focus on the fate of society’s downtrodden, the very people whom Jesus preached about and among, demonstrates how this injustice transcends time. He joins other contemporary writers – mostly women – in revisiting Western civilisation’s enduring foundation stories. Recent books such as Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey, Madeline Miller’s Circe and Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls all reinterpret Classical tales as a lens through which to understand the present.
By stripping Christianity back to its philosophical and community-oriented roots – with such core principles as affirming the brotherhood of man, sharing wealth and breaking down social hierarchies – Tsiolkas removes the edifice of institutional religion to show how faith was embraced at an individual and social level. Damascus re-centres the humanity of the gospels. In an increasingly secular world, the novel’s recitation of the simple rituals of breaking bread and sharing wine provides a reminder of honour through humble acts.
In those early generations of Christianity, it took great courage to join this radical movement, despised as a cultish offshoot of Judaism. In a society where life was dictated by the rules of faith – where blasphemy, dishonouring one’s family, upsetting the social hierarchy and offending the gods created scandal and had severe consequences – the idea of egalitarianism was truly revolutionary. One character explains how the early Christians were treated: “They kill us, they crucify us, they throw us to beasts in the arena, they sew our lips together and watch us starve … We are hunted everywhere and we are hunted by everyone.”
As always, Tsiolkas’s writing is visceral, muscular and relentless. He never lets the reader off the hook, and this book will turn certain readers away with its depiction of depravity – scenes of stoning, castration, rape, emaciated slaves being sent to their death in the arena while the voyeuristic audience feeds off bloodlust. Vrasas describes one such moment: “As the lioness feeds, as her claws rip open the belly, as the intestines and guts spill over the corpse, it is as if my own seed has been spilled. We are sated.”
Tsiolkas brings an urgency to events that are millennia old by creating vivid characters and by conjuring the sights and smells of Roman cities. The streets are shared by beggars, slaves and domestic animals; sex and childbirth take place on dirt or behind flimsy tent flaps, screams and grunts heard by passers-by. The odours of blood, shit, rotting meat and overripe fruit mix with the foul stench of tanneries and blacksmiths. Life is brutal and dangerous.
Damascus is built on paradoxes and divisions – social, familial, political and personal. Oppositional forces are illuminated: in virtue, Tsiolkas shows us sin; in faith, he bears witness to doubt. The novel is sure to offend some readers because of its religious scepticism, but while he is knowingly blasphemous, Tsiolkas is never gratuitous. Rather, he extends generosity towards a religion from which he is exiled because of his sexuality.
In the novel’s afterword, Tsiolkas refers to his own spiritual reckoning. His reconciliation of faith and sexuality is, in part, analogous with Paul’s journey. Damascus is the remarkable culmination of a long gestation of profound personal exploration for Tsiolkas; this is the novel’s beating heart.
Allen & Unwin, 440pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 16, 2019 as "Christos Tsiolkas, Damascus". Subscribe here.