20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Author, Book review, Christos Tsiolkas, Fiction, Greece, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘Dead Europe’ by Christos Tsiolkas

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 411 pages; 2005.

Dead Europe is not the kind of book you forget in a hurry.

It was the fifth novel by Christos Tsiolkas, the one immediately before he achieved international success with The Slap (in 2008).

Like that novel, it is confronting. It’s filled with complex, not always likeable characters and focused on what it is to be a first-generation Australian of Greek parentage but not fully belonging to either culture.

But unlike The Slap, which was a slice of realist drama (albeit one in which married couples had far more sex than you might expect), this one strays into Gothic territory, with elements of horror and religiosity thrown in for good measure. This makes for a rather absorbing, sometimes abhorrent, read.

It’s a proper page-turner, one that draws you into a world that feels familiar but isn’t quite real, leaving an indelible impression on the mind and the emotions. It is rather unforgettable — but it won’t be for everyone. You have been warned.

Dual narratives

Set in the early 2000s, it tells the story of Isaac, a struggling Greek Australian photographer based in Melbourne, who has been invited to stage an exhibition of his work in Athens. He jumps at the chance to visit Europe because he’ll be able to explore his roots a bit more, catch up with cousins and perhaps visit his mother’s village for the first time.

But what he finds is not the sophisticated Europe of his dreams, but a land haunted by its bloody, war-torn past, scarred by religious pogroms and massacres and ancient battles that have left behind an ugly legacy. He meets people bearing generations-long grudges against neighbours, a European culture beset by hate and hostility, and where he is immediately classified as a “naive Australian”, an innocent abroad, who isn’t experienced enough to understand history.

He’s perplexed by the myths and the superstitions that are still upheld, and unable to reconcile his new world outlook with his old world ancestry.

In alternate chapters, a second narrative unfolds: that of Isaac’s Greek ancestors, tracing them over countless generations from Greece to America and back again. Told in fairytale-like prose, this ancient storyline reveals the roots of prejudice, antisemitism and misogyny in a culture that is often upheld as civilised and sophisticated. At times this is a very ugly, murderous storyline, haunting and detestable by turn.

An innocent abroad

Isaac’s first-person narrative charts his travels across Europe (as well as Greece he goes to the Czech Republic, France and the UK) and details his encounters with cousins, friends and strangers. Every interaction forces him to reassess who he is, what he believes in. Here’s an exchange with his cousin, Maria, for instance:

—Do you believe in anything? [Maria]
I was silent. She punched me lightly on the arm.
—Well? Answer me.
—In Australia, I believe in lots of things. Here, in Europe, you all make me feel a little stupid. Do you understand? I don’t know if I believe anything in Europe.
—Australia seems a perfect place in which to finish one’s life. I imagine it’s a very quiet place, a very safe place.
I laughed […]
—Most Europeans know nothing of Australia.
—That’s true. We do not care.

This is a recurrent theme throughout the novel, of the naive traveller having his eyes opened as he comes to terms with the unsophisticated innocence of his homeland and seeing how outsiders view his Australian compatriots.

Here’s how an Algerian woman, caught up in a people-smuggling operation in France, describes it to him:

I have met very few Australians, Isaac, but I have always been struck by their innocence. They remind me of a character from Henry James, they have an innocence that the Americans have now lost. It’s very seductive but I think that if I was to live in Australia, I would learn to hate that innocence. I think it would drive me mad.

However, Isaac’s experiences on his travels aren’t entirely innocent. There’s a lot of gay sex in this novel, described in almost pornographic terms, which doesn’t always feel in keeping with the rest of the novel, and there are long conversations about religion, particularly the Jewish faith, which are deeply uncomfortable and highlight viewpoints that are abhorrent.

But these are not the only aspects that are disturbing. There is a vampiric element and a ghost element that combine to give an unexpected surrealistic slant to the story — but I’ll say no more for fear of ruining the plot.

A novel to experience

Dead Europe isn’t the kind of book you pick up for a relaxing read. This is the kind of book you experience. It gives you goosebumps and heart palpitations, it makes you angry, leaves you with a funny taste in your mouth, occasionally makes you laugh out loud or nod in recognition.

As a book that essentially explores hatred — and its long-term, far-reaching legacy — it’s intelligent, wise, thrilling, shocking, chilling to the bone and completely unforgettable.

In 2006 Dead Europe won the Age Fiction Prize, and the Best Writing Award, Melbourne Prize. I can see why it made such an impression. It’s a brilliant novel about lies and myths and hate and truth, topics that are more relevant than ever before.

This is my 9th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it from Dymocks in Perth CBD last year.

16 thoughts on “‘Dead Europe’ by Christos Tsiolkas”

  1. I bought this without knowing anything about it because somebody recommended it to me, (and something else as well, I forget its title now) and I turfed both of them because I disliked The Slap.
    Reading your review has reinforced that I feel no regret!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. LOL. I’m pretty sure you’d hate this, Lisa, so wise decision. I liked it a lot because I’m at the point now two years into my repatriation journey where I hate the innocence of Australians too. But that’s probably not a discussion for this blog 😂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved Loaded when I read it (20 years ago!) and have always thought Dead Europe was his second – I just checked, and yes it’s his fifth – I remember some of what you describe, but not all. I’m going to have to read it again. And I agree, sex in Tsiolkas often seems gratuitous and therefore pornographic.

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  3. Really interesting the comments and review. As someone who’s both Kiwi and Aussie and lived for long stretches in Europe, I totally understand all of this and this feeling of being indulged like a child over there because I’m from the new world and I’m therefore naive. There’s some truth to that for sure. But only in relation to not knowing how to speak a language, once you do and can live there then they do treat you much differently. There’s a part of me that hates seeing people take silly selfies in front of the holocaust monuments, so perhaps the solemn dark history has settled into my bones now. Definitely I want to read this book, I haven’t read any of his other work but this sounds really cool – thank you

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  4. Also the idea of complacency, so true! Aussies and Kiwis are reluctant to against authority or the government if they disagree with how they are running things- that’s both Australia and NZ in a nutshell and it’s infuriating how well behaved people are here, in Europe and the UK that’s not the case and that’s far better

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    1. That’s not quite what I mean by complacency. Following rules is generally a good thing. What I mean is that Australians have it so good in so many ways (economically, socially etc) that they become complacent and think the rest of the world is like that too. I have lost count of the number of times I have had to explain the concept of austerity (and it’s harmful impacts) to colleagues who have never experienced a recession let alone a massive government program of defunding services (and selling them off) as they have done in the UK for 10+ years.

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      1. Yes perhaps we have had a good run of things here in Australia, this was thanks to trade with China but that has gone now. What I mean by complacent is that older voters are willing to endorse right-wing policies around destruction of the environment and fossil fuels, sleep-walk into the end of life on our planet. Australia is now an outlier and all alone with how they are dealing with climate change and still our country is run by greedy megalomaniacs who cannot commit to any change.

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