Christos Tsiolkas, Damascus (Allen & Unwin 2019)
I’m not a Christos Tsiolkas fan. I read most of The Slap aloud on a long car journey and it wasn’t a pleasant experience – the sex scenes were embarrassing and the characters’ misogyny repugnant. But I knew I had to read Damascus.
Like two other novels that come to mind – Mary’s Testament by Colm Tóibín, and The Book of Rachel by Leslie Cannold (links are to my blog posts) – this promised to explore the stories I received in childhood as containing the deep and enduring meaning of life; to explore them, interrogate them, reimagine them. Those other novels told the stories of Jesus’ mother and imagined sister respectively; the central character of this one is the man most responsible for shaping the Jesus story, St Paul, once known as Saul of Tarsus.
Damascus delivers on the promise, in spades. I’m not equipped to comment in any detail on Tsiolkas’ use of the sources. I have only read excerpts from Paul’s epistles, I couldn’t say for sure whether I’ve ever read the book of Acts, and I know nothing about the apocryphal gospel of Thomas except that it exists. Tsiolkas has immersed himself in these documents, and emerged with a story stripped of holy-card or gold-leaf piety, about a man, and a nascent community, coming to grips with a transforming way of understanding what it is to be human.
The world of the novel is callous and often violent. Israel and the rest of Western Asia is under brutal Roman occupation. It’s a place where divisions between free and enslaved, male and female, Jew and Stranger, Roman and non-Roman are rigidly enforced. For a man to touch a woman, or a free person to touch a slave, is a shocking transgression, and in the wrong time and place can meet with shocking punishment. Anyone born disabled or with a physical abnormality, or even sometimes a person born female, would be dumped alive in a cave outside the city and left to starve or be killed by wild beasts. The novel doesn’t draw a discreet veil over any of this horror: the opening scene is a graphic account of a stoning; the fate of rejected babies is realised in nightmarish detail; a man is seen breathing his last after days suspended on a cross, pecked at by carrion crows; a young Jew is castrated and has his tongue plucked out for desecrating a Roman shrine, and then is killed and buried unceremoniously by his brothers because of the shame. Pagan practices involving animal sacrifice that are familiar enough to us are described in stomach churning bodiliness.
In this world, the people who follow Jeshua, as he is called, believe in the brotherhood and sisterhood of all. Slaves and free, women and men eat and drink and embrace together. They are reviled as a death cult because they revere someone who was subjected to the ultimate humiliation of crucifixion, but they are tender and affectionate with each other. Their ritual greeting – ‘He is risen’ ‘Truly he is coming’ – sounds a little Handmaid’s Tale-ish, and foreshadows the way that community was to harden into an institution, but in the present time of the novel we see a genuine striving to live the truth of loving all.
At the beginning, Saul is a zealous, scholarly Jew who supplements what he earns as a tent-maker by hunting down Christians, entrapping them and handing them over to the authorities for execution. He’s also riddled with guilt and self-hatred because of his compulsive sexual attraction to men, and has a troubled relationship with his family because he is unmarried. According to Acts, he was struck down on the road to Damascus where he heard a voice saying, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ and that moment marked his dramatic conversion to Christianity. The book handles that moment beautifully. it’s told from Paul’s point of view, and we’re never completely sure what happened. There is a lot of light. He is brutally beaten, incurring permanent injuries, and it’s the days of care he received from a Christian group, even though they know he is their persecutor, and even though he repudiates them, that brings about his conversion. Part of the care is warm intimate connection with another man – and though we’re never told whether any actual sex is involved, a strong homoerotic tenderness pervades his relationships with other male followers of Jeshua: much kissing on the lips, sleeping in each other’s arms, bathing each other and so on. Paul is loving with the women members of the community as well, but never with this kind of intimacy.
Paul wants to expand the community to include non-Jews – Strangers. He takes on a young man, Timothy (who is there in Acts), whose mother was a Jew and father Greek. Acts tells us that Paul circumcised him. Damascus gives us the detail of that – the gore (this is a Christos Tsiolkas novel, after all), but also the religious dilemma: Paul is going against his own preaching that is the coming kingdom there is neither Jew nor Greek, but the emotional and social demands of the moment overwhelm the correct line.
The Biblical Paul’s injunction, ‘Slaves be obedient to your masters,’ is the basis for a major narrative thread. Consistent with the rest of the novel, the horrors of slavery and the terrible implications of that injunction are realised.
As anyone who has read even a little about the beginnings of Christianity knows, those early years were full of controversy. The first Christians were Jews, and what now reads as antisemitism in the gospels was written as one group of Jews attacking others. The story of Mary Magdalen meeting the risen Jesus is a vestige of her role as a leader in the early community. The story of doubting Thomas, who said he wouldn’t believe that Jesus had risen unless he saw him with his own eyes, is polemic against the real-life Thomas who preached a different version from the one that became canonical. One of the terrific things about Damascus is the way it includes the controversy: a body of belief is in the process of forming, and the proponents of different positions have enormous difficulty staying loving with each other, and can fail spectacularly. Realistically, none of them shake off the religious world-views they inherited as children: conversion is always a work in progress.
Thomas is a major character. In this novel he, not John, is the disciple most beloved of ‘the Lord’. He is the one who witnessed the crucifixion. And he doesn’t believe in the resurrection. He and Paul – and the other leaders, mainly James in Jerusalem, whom we don’t meet – clash, and he is expelled from the community. By the end of the novel, there are four generations of Christians, the belief that Jeshua will return in triumph imminently is wearing thing, and there is a groping towards a different way of understanding the meaning of his life and death. We – or at least I – feel it is unbearably sad when Thomas, who is every bit a generous, forgiving and loving against the odds as Paul or any of the others, is rancorously dismissed, when his understanding – that the kingdom of heaven is to be found in how we can be with each other, not in any supernatural intervention – is perhaps the richest of all.
So, it’s a terrific book. I don’t know what Christos Tsiolkas’ devout Orthodox relatives will make of it, but it helps this lapsed Catholic look back on his roots with fresh respect, even awe. I hope it’s not pushing the Biblical allusions too far to say that in this book the word of the Christian New Testament is made stinky, fluid-emitting, blistered, burned and suffering flesh.