Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas

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Reviewed by Rod McLary

Drawing on Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus and the subsequent founding of the Christian Church, Christos Tsiolkas has written a powerful and confronting novel which speaks of love and hate, kindness and cruelty, and the fluidity of faith.  Using the gospels and letters of St Paul [Saul] as first-hand accounts of the establishment of the church, the author has crafted a story which is immersed in violence, prejudice and toxic masculinity.  But at the same time, there are glimmers of what has been promised and what is yet to come.

Reading a Tsiolkas book is not an easy task.  There is no question regarding the quality of the writing – the difficulty comes with the exposure through good writing to the unfiltered nature of people.  The novel begins with these words –

The world is in darkness.  The hood the guards have placed over her head scratches at her cheeks and neck.  She takes fleeting comfort from the smell of the greasy fibre, the odours of the sheep and goat.  From her first memory their bleating was part of her life.  They were her companions during the day and over countless nights, when she’d join them in their rough stable to escape the drunken violence of her father and her brothers, and then that of her husband.  [5]

This unnamed young woman is shortly to be stoned to death as an adulteress and her death is witnessed by Saul who has not yet been converted but who has exposed her to the priests as a sinner.

Israel in the early years of the first millennium was a harsh and cruel place where blood and gore, beatings and punishments, cruelty to others were simply part of day-to-day life.  The stoning of the young woman – the young woman who bravely retorted to the crowd present to stone her to death ‘If you are without sin, then cast your stone’ [8] – is only the first of many incidents which confront and challenge the reader.  There are graphic descriptions of unwanted babies – unwanted due to their gender or disability or just one too many mouths to feed – who are abandoned on an escarpment outside the town and left exposed to the weather and the wild animals.  Wives and slaves are beaten, sometimes for minor transgressions.  One example is when Lydia – married to Theodorus – briefly escapes her household duties and, without permission, walks to the seafront with her slave who was powerless to prevent her.  On her return, she says –

Of course my husband whipped me on my return.  I accepted his punishment. … and my beating was nothing compared to the lashing he gave the slave.  [62]

Lydia, who is one of Saul’s first converts to Christianity, after her conversion refuses to abandon her newly-born daughter simply because she was born with only one arm.  She instead abandons her sons and husband and hides in the hills until the death of her daughter some years later.  By doing so, she perhaps unknowingly obeys the injunction of Jesus to walk away from family and friends and follow him.

The centre of the novel is the epiphany of Saul’s on the road to Damascus.  However, this is no simple rendering of what was said in The Acts of the Apostles as recorded in the Bible.  Christos Tsiolkas describes it thus –

He falls away from his body and from the world but not before he hears the voice ask, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you pursuing me?’

Then blackness.  Is it hours, is it days, is it eternity?  All is black.  [125]

It is not accidental that the key word in this passage ‘pursuing’ has been changed from ‘persecuting’ as used in Acts 9:5. The use of ‘pursuing’ brings another meaning to the passage – one in which Saul is walking towards Jesus [or Yeshua as he is named in the book] on the road to Damascus rather than only loudly denigrating him and his teachings.  After three days of blindness and unspeakable pain during which he is cared for by Christians, Saul wakes and remembers ‘that startling and luminous light, the light that healed him’ [131]  He says in response to the memory ‘May the Lord forgive you … And may the Lord forgive me’. [131]

Christos Tsiolkas has said that ‘much of historic sexual stigmatisation in our contemporary world [arises] from St Paul’s writing’.  One view of these writings is that Paul’s strictures against homosexuality spring from his struggles with his own sexuality.  These struggles sometimes find expression in the book as set out in the following passage –

The man sitting in front of Saul turns and offers him a wan smile.  His face is boyish, his black beard still thin, yet corruption has begun its relentless desecration.  The lad is rubbing himself.  Saul leans forward.  To embrace him?  To urge him to leave? To flee; to regain youth?  Saul cannot move. The youth’s other hand has climbed Saul’s thigh.   [24]

Running through previous novels of Tsiolkas – such as in Loaded, The Slap and Barracuda – is the theme of masculinity: what is it to be male?  Damascus is no different.  The concept of masculinity is thoroughly explored.  However, in these early biblical times, it is easier to restate the question as – what is it not to be male?  The answer is – it is not to be humble or weak, not to turn the other cheek, not to show affection to others, not to be servile, not to remain unmarried without sons, and, apposite to the increasing and threatening number of followers of Yeshua, not to speak of ‘a kingdom of peace’ or that ‘we will all be as one’.  The response of the non-followers is simply ‘these blasphemers will not up-end the world’ and to the young boy who failed the maleness test ‘the father will destroy this son, that is the only righteous law’. [211]

But the book promises some hope.  As Paul says to himself ‘The Lord was the only god that forgave men as men’ [242].  Paul’s gift is to reveal the truth that Yeshua is the new covenant.

Damascus is a challenging and confronting read.  It challenges the reader’s conventional thinking about the birth of Christianity and the role of Saul/Paul in the establishment of the Christian church.  It also challenges the reader to see Saul primarily as a man subject to the lusts, the greed and the cruelty of his time – just like the men and boys around him.  The book also confronts the reader with graphic descriptions of cruelty particularly to women and children and slaves, the perception of slaves as being of no account, of children being violated without regret.  It also leavens those descriptions with an offer of hope for the future to be delivered when Yeshua returns.

More than coincidentally, the cover of the book – which is as powerful as its contents – is the 1601 painting by Caravaggio Conversion on the Way to Damascus.  This painting, as well as some others by Caravaggio, was considered by the church authorities at the time to be ‘too vulgar’ but it captures the very moment of ‘intense religious ecstasy’ as Saul is flung from his horse.

Christos Tsiolkas has written six novels including The Slap and Barracuda which was shortlisted for the ALS Gold Medal and the inaugural Voss Literary Prize.  He is also a playwright, an essayist and a screenwriter.

Damascus

[2019]

by Christos Tsiolkas

Allen & Unwin

ISBN 9 781760 875091

440pp; $32.99

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