Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas
Damascus is one of the standout novels of the year, delivered to us by the incomparable and singular writer who is Christos Tsiolkas, an author who reinvents himself with every single one of his books, but who always delivers the same boldness of vision in his trademark uncompromising, muscular style. And this is a book that only Tsiolkas could envision – a story that homes in on people and places of the historical bible, and plunges readers directly into the chaotic century that birthed the cult of belief that was maligned and shunned but came to be known as Christianity. Central to the story is Paul, or Saul of Tarsus, who travelled the Roman Empire in the first century telling the story of Jesus’s resurrection.
One of the things that always excites me about Tsiolkas’s work is the way that he is able to take readers deep into experience; in his writing, the strong sense of his characters being bodies in space is always at front of mind. These are bodies that feel, that experience violence, desire, sex, pain, and are subjected to the rule of power and ideology. These are bodies that are born, live desperately, and then die. To read Damascus is to feel every moment in sometimes uncomfortably vivid detail: smelling the stench of abject poverty, feeling the terror of anticipation as your time in the arena draws near, drinking the blood of a ritual sacrifice, suffering the agony of grief and torture and separation. The blood and gore that makes life in these times is a metaphor for our own: yes, it’s that intense, and it’s absolutely marvellous.
This is not a religious book, even though its events are fictionalised around some of the people who are known from the New Testament and other religious texts. What Tsiolkas does here is bring to light questions that are as vital in the contemporary moment as they ever were in the ancient world, around the dynamics of political rule and the structures of social hierarchies, belief and purpose, compassion and generosity and love, and about what it is that might offer hope in dark times. We need Christos and his words so much right now.