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.

20 books of summer (2017), Australia, Author, Book review, Christos Tsiolkas, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Random House Australia, Setting

‘The Jesus Man’ by Christos Tsiolkas

The Jesus Man by Christos Tsiolkas

Fiction – paperback; Random House Australia; 414 pages; 1999.

Christos Tsiolkas is one of those writers who divide opinion: you either love him or hate him. Regular readers of this blog will know I fall into the former camp.

The Jesus Man is his second novel. It’s not quite as over-the-top grungy as his debut, Loaded, but it is definitely confronting and just as sexually explicit. It’s also quite violent, perhaps gratuitously so, and there are scenes within its pages that are truly stomach-churning and, well, distasteful. It makes the hard-hitting nature of The Slap (pun not intended) tame by comparison.

But it’s a well-crafted, authentic story about a first generation immigrant family that makes for compulsive reading. I loved the raw, visceral nature of the writing and the door it opens onto a distinctly working class world where pride, politics and prejudice often collide.

The outfall of a shocking act

The novel is framed around a shocking act carried out by Tommy Stefano, a 20-something man, who has broken up with his long-term girlfriend and shut himself off from his family.

The story is told through the eyes of Tommy’s younger brother, Lou, who claims that he wants to “offer a history of my family”:

But remember, please, this is also my story, in my own words. I’ll try and be honest, tell you what I know. But it is an interpretation; and I have to go back to beginnings and in the beginning I wasn’t there. So it may be that some of what I say is bullshit, is speculation, lies and fabrications passed on.

What ensues is a multi-layered, complex tale divided into three major sections devoted to each brother — Dominic Stefano, Tommy Stefano, Luigi Stefano — and two smaller sections about the sibling’s parentage between an Italian father and a Greek mother. Lou takes his time to explain what his close-knit, loud and opinionated family was like before his brother carried out his unspeakable deed and then examines the outfall — social, mental, emotional — on those closest to Tommy afterwards.

The UK edition of The Jesus Man by Christos Tsiolkas
UK Edition published by Atlantic books

Trademark themes

Like all of Tsiolkas’ work, there are recurring themes:  the fraught and complicated relationships between generations; cultural baggage that comes from being the child of a European immigrant in a white anglo-Australian society; and the confusion and shame that arises when a young man raised in a macho culture realises he might be gay.

It’s typically left-leaning (Lou’s mother is a socialist) and there’s a lot of commentary about Australian politics (it’s set in the era of economic rationalism) and it’s often negative impact on the working class. Melbourne, as ever, is faithfully reproduced, almost as if the city is a character in its own right.

Occasionally the prose feels uneven — often angry and over-the-top when Tsiolkas is writing the sexually explicit bits; more sedate and polished when writing about everything else — and it’s debatable as to whether the final section (titled “Epilogues”) adds anything to the story. But on the whole, The Jesus Man is a powerful and absorbing read about the power of family, love and the ties that bind.

This is my 14th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it in on one of my trips to Australia — possibly in 2005 — and it has sat in my TBR ever since.

Atlantic Books, Australia, Author, Book review, Christos Tsiolkas, Fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, short stories

‘Merciless Gods’ by Christos Tsiolkas

Merciless Gods by Christos Tsiolkas

Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 336 pages; 2014.

Christos Tsiolkas has a reputation as a bold writer of daring, often controversial, fiction. Merciless Gods, first published in Australia in 2014 but recently released in the UK, is a collection of short stories that continues Tsiolkas’ trademark flare for writing edgy stories about taboo subjects.

Unsettling stories

There are 15 stories in the collection — and they’re not for the faint hearted. Even those that are “tame” by Tsiolkas’ standards are still confronting and unsettling. There are tales about homophobia, racism, revenge, death, grief, power, parenthood, friendship and family. And most are set in the suburbs of Melbourne, Sydney and Perth.

The range and breadth of the collection is one of its great strengths, because each story has its own distinctive “voice”:  we hear from brothers, mothers, students, immigrants, young lovers, lost souls. Some are in the first person, others in the third person.

Many taboo subjects are addressed, from male rape to drug addiction, but while the writing is fearless — Tsiolksas doesn’t hold back on detail or imagery — it’s usually with a view to shining a light on injustice, bigotry and prejudice. In other words, these aren’t gratuitous tales; there’s a message at their core even if the reader might need to be shaken out of their own complacency to find them.

Tsiolkas is at his best concentrating on his “pet” subjects — what it is to be gay, the fraught and complicated relationships between generations, and cultural baggage that comes from being the child of an immigrant. But he also writes powerful stories about heterosexual couples and friendship — the opening story, Merciless Gods, for instance, is a horrifying glimpse of the competitive spirit between young adults and what happens when you take things too far (and is highly reminiscent of Wayne Macauley’s Demons).

No weak link

When I write about short story collections I tend to highlight a handful of stand-out stories, but it’s hard to do that with this book because they’re all so good: there isn’t a weak link in the chain, so to speak. Of course, some are more hard-hitting and stomach churning than others.

I found the final story distasteful (I won’t name it here because it has a term in it that will generate lots of spam), but only because it presented an unfamiliar world of anonymous male sex (which, to be honest, I’d rather not know about), but it did make me think about the ways in which some people pick and choose when to follow their religion and how leading a less-than-honest life can be psychologically damaging.

I felt the same way about Genetic Material in which a man visits his father in a nursing home and then does something rather shocking, not because he wants to but because he feels that it’s the most kind thing he can do. But it made me shudder and want to take a long cold shower.

Even the less confronting stories are, well, still confronting. In Sticks, Stones a hard-working mother realises she hates her teenage son after she hears him call a girl in his class with Downs Syndrome something rather offensive. Instead of dealing with the situation and ticking her son off and explaining why his language is unacceptable, she chooses to humiliate him instead.

In Tourists, Trina and Bill, a young married couple visiting New York, have a falling out over a racist term that Bill mutters about a gallery attendant who annoys him. The tension between the pair — Trina’s anger and horror, Bill’s shame and confusion — are expertly captured in a story that clearly shows how the stress of travel can cause people to misbehave badly. This is made all the more ironic given the pair are trying not to look like obvious tourists — despite their distinctive accents and attire.

Adult content

I’ll be the first to admit that Merciless Gods isn’t for everyone — the content is very much of the adult kind. But if you have read Tsiolkas’ work before, you will know what to expect.

And even if you haven’t, but you like your fiction to take you out of your comfort zone, to present viewpoints and stories that will make you think, unsettle you and leave you with a lingering sense of disquiet, it’s definitely one to add to the wishlist.

For another take on this collection, please see Simon Savidge’s review.

This is my 37th book for #ReadingAustralia2016

Australia, Author, Book review, Christos Tsiolkas, Fiction, literary fiction, Setting, Tuskar Rock Press

‘Barracuda’ by Christos Tsiolkas

Barracuda-UKcover

Fiction – paperback; Tuskar Rock Press; 513 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas hit the big time with his best-selling novel The Slap in 2008. It won the ALS Gold Medal (2008), the Commonwealth Writers Prize Best Book (2009) and the Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction (2009). It was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award (2009) and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize (2010). It was also adapted for television as an eight-part series (which, by the way, I highly recommend — by far the best thing on TV in 2011).

But while it won plenty of praise and sold by the truckload, it also attracted much controversy — critics complained about the language (too raw), the sex (too filthy) and the characters (unlikeable). Some — mainly British reviewers — claimed it was misogynistic. Me? I loved it. Which is why I was so looking forward to his new novel, Barracuda, which has just been published in the UK.

I’m pleased to say I wasn’t disappointed. This is another highly readable, totally addictive, octane-fuelled story that addresses big themes — what it is to be good, what it is to be successful, love, redemption and social mobility  — and isn’t afraid to be in your face about it.

Swimming talent

The story follows Danny Kelly, who acquires the nickname “Barracuda” because of his extraordinary talent in the swimming pool. This talent offers Danny the chance to escape his working class roots. Not only does it earn him a scholarship to a prestigious private school in Melbourne, if he works hard and dedicates himself to the sport, he could end up on the Australian swimming team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

But at his first big championship swim meet he blows it — and comes fifth. Where others might have learnt a valuable lesson and become even more determined to achieve their Olympic dream, Danny never quite recovers from the shock of losing. Even though he has the physical ability to be an elite swimmer, he lacks the emotional and psychological maturity to deal with this setback. And sadly, this sets in motion a whole chain of events which will haunt Danny for the rest of his life.

And I understand, I know, it is failure that is evil.
So I run, my strides enormous, not caring who I crash into, who I hurt. I run so fast that I am hurting the ground as I pound it. I run so fast that I am fire. But no matter how fast I run, the Devil is there beside me. The Devil is in me. I am a larva and that which is emerging is something vile, something uglier that what existed before.

Two narrative threads

When the story opens we meet Danny long after that swimming “failure”. In fact, he’s so loathe to remember his swimming past that he refuses to go near water. He’s reinvented himself as a carer helping injured people during their rehabilitiation, and he’s living on the other side of the world, in Glasgow, Scotland, with his male lover, Clyde. But Danny has a secret — and he knows that at some point he’s going to have to come clean and tell his boyfriend because it could scupper his plan to stay in the UK permanently.

From there the book splits into two distinct narratives: one that moves backwards in time, tracing Danny’s new life in Scotland to his time as a teenage swim sensation; and the other that moves forwards in time, following his story from teenage swim sensation to potential Scottish immigrant. It’s a device that works well, because it provides light and shade to Danny’s story — his successes and failures, his struggle to be good against his “natural” inclination to be bad — and lets you see what impact certain events have on his later life. And it also provides just the right amount of narrative tension to keep you moving the pages — what, for instance, is that secret he’s so carefully guarding in Scotland? The shock of it, I must say, left me slightly stunned.

Indeed, there’s many revelations in this book that left me stunned. It’s a thought-provoking read — as ever, the language is raw and often crude (the nickname that Danny gives his college is but one example) and the sex is filthy (you have been warned) — but it explores so many interesting themes and issues that it’s impossible not to like. It feels utterly contemporary, but by the same token, the story, of a boy from the wrong side of the tracks trying to cross over into a more affluent social class, could have been lifted from a 19th century novel.

Life in Australia

As an expat-Australian reading this book, I identified with so much of the social commentary, especially the no-holds barred criticisms of Australia, that I had to stop myself from underlining whole pages for fear I’d end up scribbling over the entire book. I particularly loved this passage, which comes out of the mouth of Clyde, a Scotsman who sums up life in Australia perfectly (forgive the cursive language, which is Tsiolkas’ not mine):

“You all think you are so egalitarian, but you’re the most status-seeking people I’ve met. You call yourselves laid back but you’re angry and resentful all the time. You say there is no class system here, but you’re terrified of the poor, and you say you’re anti-authoritarian but all there is here is rules, from the moment I fucken landed here, rules about doing this and not doing that, don’t climb there, don’t go here, don’t smoke and don’t drink here and don’t play there and don’t drink and drive and don’t go over the speed limit and don’t do anything fucken human. You’re all so scared of dying you can’t let yourselves live — fuck that: we’re human, we die, that’s part of life. That’s just life.”

I could go on, but I won’t, because I’m not sure everyone would agree with me, but sometimes you have to leave your country to understand it, and reading Barracuda made me feel so much better about many of the things that have bugged me for a decade or more.

All in all, this is a hugely powerful read, not just about sporting achievement and striving to be the best at what you choose to do, but of coming to terms with your own frailties and flaws, of learning to appreciate your family, friends and loved ones, and being prepared to let go of the past in order to move into the future. There’s a lot of love, forgiveness, redemption and atonement in this novel. It’s ambitious — in structure and in subject — but it succeeds, because Tsiolkas forgoes the literary flourishes and makes it a truly entertaining and accessible read — and that, to me, is what the very best fiction should be all about.

And finally…

As an aside, I do recommend that you listen to this You Wrote the Book podcast — a 31-minute interview with Christos Tsiolkas — by my mate, Simon Savidge, which covers Barracuda indepth.

And in the interests of transparency, I should point out I met the author on Monday night at his UK book launch — a kinder, more lovelier person you could not meet. I had a wonderful chat to him (about Australian society — what else?) on the walk to a Bloomsbury restaurant, where a celebratory dinner was held with his publishing posse and a whole bunch of people from the upcoming Australian and New Zealand Festival of the Arts to which I’d kindly been invited. That meeting and meal has not influenced this review; I loved the book even before I had the good fortune to meet the man who penned it.

Australia, Author, Book review, Christos Tsiolkas, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Loaded’ by Christos Tsiolkas

Loaded

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 151 pages; 1995.

Loaded is the first novel by Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas, he of The Slap fame. To say the book is loud, brash and in-your-face would be an understatement. It brims with raw energy, power and verve. It’s audacious — and confronting.

It’s also pornographic and those who don’t really want to know the detail of casual, often anonymous, gay sex should probably stay clear. But the sex is central to the novel’s focus, for Ari, the narrator, is 19, unemployed and trying to find his way in the world. He is bored — and self-destructive. He’s looking for any kind of experience to lift him out of his ordinary, dull, suburban existence. And if that means getting it off with strangers in nightclubs and public toilets, then so be it.

Ari is also a drug user — and occasional pusher.

Stark subject matter

Yet despite the stark subject matter and the clear-eyed prose, there’s something sad and tender about this story.

Spanning just 24 hours, we get a glimpse of Ari’s frustrating home life — his father, a Greek immigrant, calls him an “animal” and is prone to angry outbursts; his mother, an Australian, shouts and nags — and see how he prowls the city — its streets, its suburbs, its nightclubs  — because he needs “something else going on”.

What’s clear from the outset is that Ari, aimless, directionless and confused by his sexuality, has a bleak world view shaped by the things he sees around him — his parent’s unhappiness (“I love my parents but I don’t think they have much guts. Always complaining about how hard life is and not having much money. And they do shit to change any of it”), the casual racism among his peers and the ways in which the immigrant community is just as obsessed by money and class as the “skips” (white Australians).

He thinks he looks like John Cusack

He is intelligent, good-looking (“I saw John Cusack interviewed on late-night television and he looked like me”) and obsessed by movies and music. In fact, he spends most of the novel mooching around listening to mix tapes on his Walkman (the music references are particularly good if you are of a certain, a-hem, vintage).

But what resonates most is Ari’s sense of alienation — from his parents (in particular, his father’s Greek background), his older brother (who is studying at university and is not afraid to stand up against his domineering parents), his friends (who have gainful employment) and himself (never quite sure if he is gay or straight).

This alienation is reflected in the city he sees around him — the narrative is very much tied to Melbourne’s suburban enclaves and is split into four parts named East, West, South and North — which he loves and loathes in equal measure. I particularly enjoyed his references to suburbs and places I know from my time living in Melbourne (which is about the same time that events in the book take place) and thought his descriptions of the Eastern suburbs (which are more affluent than the West) — with their “continuous loop of brick-veneer houses forming a visual mantra” — pretty much spot-on.

In the East, in the new world of suburbia there is no dialogue, no conversation, no places to go out: for there is no need, there is television.

An angry young man

The strength of the novel lies in Ari’s voice, which is angry, full of self-loathing and deeply cynical. He’s not necessarily a likable character, but he is empathetically drawn.

Loaded isn’t the type of novel you read for “pleasure”, but it’s worth reading because it offers an eye-opening peek inside a rarely seen world. It’s like getting on a rollercoaster for the first time: it’s deeply frightening but once the ride ends you’re glad you found the courage to experience it.