Gen X is growing up. Christos Tsiolkas, once the pin-up boy of 1990s Grunge Lit, has turned 50 and written an intimate first-person account of St Paul’s conversion. Damascus exposes the reality of an ancient pagan society riven with sexual violence, enslavement, brutality and child-abandonment. From within this world we encounter the radical Christian vision that every person is unique, equal and dignified, that violence must be met with love, and that only those who have not sinned should throw the first stone.
Tsiolkas’s talent for depicting psychological experiences through the sensual ensures this novel’s success. Paul’s shame and frustration are brought to life for us through his physical instincts, through the terror of stoning, the unforgiving presence of heat and hunger, dust and locusts, and the horror of watching fellow-Christians devoured in the arena. But Tsiolkas’s descriptive skills not only make vivid Paul’s suffering; they also narrate the experience of conversion as a process that alters the mind and body in deeply sensual ways. Paul’s deliverance is described as a light saturating of all his senses, and the finding of a new confidence that enables him to perceive the world as fallen, but to respond to sin with compassion rather than loathing.
Tsiolkas’s first novel, Loaded (1995) defined my generation’s teenage boredom and self-hatred. It charts a single night of disinterested, drug-addled sex on the Melbourne gay scene by Ari, a second-generation migrant alienated by the expectations of his parents (that their son be Greek-speaking, pious about the homeland, hard-working and straight). In the decades since then Tsiolkas’s writing has revealed a growing doubt about the political ideologies he initially embraced over and against the culture of his parents. The End of Europe (2005) is an acknowledgement that socialism could not fill the spiritual vacuum after all. And by the time he wrote The Slap (2008), now himself a middle-class thirty-something benefitting from the economic bounty made possible by his parents’ self-denial, Tsiolkas was ready to expose the moral emptiness lurking in millennial affluence and liberalism. With Damascus, his sixth novel, Tsiolkas has buried most of his youthful shibboleths and begun to make peace with the faith of his parents.
Loaded was largely autobiographical. What it didn’t tell us about the young Tsiolkas is how much he resented the writings of St Paul, to which his devout Greek Orthodox mother turned in order to make sense of her son’s atheism. Damascus is also party autobiographical: it is set around AD 50 but its subtext is Tsiolkas’s own attempts to engage more deeply with Paul and the Christianity that he once believed had rejected him.
In many ways Tsiolkas’s Paul is Tsiolkas himself; Damascus can be read as an extended contemplative prayer in which its author enters imaginatively into biblical events in order to understand himself more fully. As Tsiolkas acknowledges, “history can’t be forgotten and its ghosts have also made their way into this novel. But I am not wrestling with Paul any longer. I am walking beside him. With gratitude.”
Except that as part of this exercise, Tsiolkas has wandered into the apocryphal texts. His Timothy narrative is a step too far in this direction. It belongs entirely to Tsiolkas’s own thought-experiment and his desire to imagine Timothy (a saint in the Orthodox Church) as a fleshly and fallen human being. Like many non-Christians or nascent Christians, Tsiolkas betrays in the Timothy narrative his longing to glimpse a version of Christian tradition in which the non-canonical texts are canonical.
These personal digressions sap the novel of its force precisely because they undermine what is elsewhere so powerful in Damascus: the struggle of an anti-Christian (both Paul and Tsiolkas himself) as he grapples with the revealed truth on its own terms and manages, against his own instincts, to undergo the personal and deeply interior experience of conversion; an experience that is halting and uneven, falling frequently backwards on itself. In this, Tsiolkas has made forcefully apparent that to be Christian is to struggle to be Christian. In his desire to understand his own heritage, in his frustrated longing to have that heritage conform itself to his own experience, he appears to have returned precisely to the lost territory of his parents’ faith.
Tsiolkas insists, however, that writing Damascus has not made him a Christian; he does not believe in the Resurrection. But it would seem he has become that increasingly rare thing: a well-read and well-informed agnostic. For the Christian reader, Damascus will wake up dormant faith with a violent kick. Its theological irregularities can be forgiven because it openly acknowledges what so many Quests for the Historical Jesus do not accept about themselves: that they are fiction. In the realm of fiction the human experience of conversion can be far more radical and compelling, far more effective in bringing about the conversion of others, than argument or apologetics.