Christos Tsiolkas. Pic: Zoe Ali

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Damascus: the dawning of a new creed

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Fotis Kapetopoulos talks to Christos Tsiolkas about his most demanding book, Damascus.

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Damascus is Christos Tsiolkas’ most demanding book. The novel, based on the Apostle Paul, seeps into the reader’s skin. It draws out dreams and creates sleepless nights.

Damascus is written from various perspectives of the key characters. It begins with Lydia, an old Greek woman who was once young and middle-class. She now lives in a cave and many see her as a witch. Lydia prays to Jesus about babies abandoned on the mountain by their Greek and Roman parents, only to die from exposure or be eaten by beasts.

Tsiolkas has taken on the challenge of writing from a woman’s viewpoint, a challenge perhaps in such fraught times of political correctness.

“I did not think about that as an issue, regardless of ‘woke’ puritans,” says Tsiolkas.

“Initially, Lydia was written as her slave Goodness, but she would not have entre into the world of the Greeks and Romans. And once I decided to do so, the chapters came out as a rush.

Saul is anguished by his own sexuality, his own eroticism, observes Tsiolkas.

“I wanted to say it from the perspective of a woman because the early Christian fellowship had erased women, yet they played a pivotal role.

“She’s a Greek and open to learning; Lydia goes to hear the ‘word’ at the meeting house.”

In ancient Judea, gentiles attended the synagogues and were referred to as ‘God-fearers’ by the Jews.

Greeks worshipped an Unknown God, the Agnostos Theos, and it was this god that Apostle Paul talks about to the Athenians in his Areopagossermon, recorded in the Book of Acts.

It was in this nascent Jewish sect called Christianity that women, children and slaves became ‘brothers and sisters’.

Paul and the apostles seeded the collapse of the Greco-Roman world, with a new Judaic-Hellenistic philosophy – Christianity. 

Paul needed the Greeks for the Roman world to collapse. The Zealots could not do it alone.

“You cannot read Paul’s sermons and letters and not see Plato in them,” Tsiolkas adds.

Greeks reconcile the pagan and the Christian, the feminine and the masculine.

“Nikos Kazantzakis talks about that division of the feminine and the masculine,” says Tsiolkas. “Nietzsche sees Christianity as feminine, a slave religion.”

In Damascus, when we see the world through Saul’s eyes – before he became Paul – as a radical Jew hunting down Jews who forsook the law of God, we experience Saul’s indignity and final rapture, that white light that burned into him on the way to Damascus.

Saul is anguished by his own sexuality, his own eroticism, observes Tsiolkas. “That was my way into him, finding out about him as a character. I was not interested in the saint, I was interested in the man.

“That is why my first couple of attempts were failures because I thought of him as a saint but, no, he is a man.”

Tsiolkas, like all Greeks and Jews (indeed, like all easterners), knows shame. “I understand shame culture, which is very different to the guilt culture of the Protestants and some of the Catholics.”

“As Greeks, and Orthodox, we are from the east,” he continues. “We know the deeper connection to a pre-Christian world. We have no guilt, but we know shame.”

“That was my way into him, finding out about him as a character. I was not interested in the saint, I was interested in the man.”

That shame arises when an act is exposed to a person’s family, clan and village. Shame implies pre-monotheist eroticism, argues Tsiolkas.

“You can be in Amman in Jordan and the eroticism is palpable compared to the west, even among men.”

In one chapter, Vrasas the Roman cares for the imprisoned Paul, even calling him “uncle”, yet he does not understand Paul’s weakness.

Rome was a democratising empire. Anyone could be Roman regardless of colour and faith as long as they hailed the notion of ‘first among equals’ and believed in Rome.

Vrasas drags Paul to witness the Roman apex of cruelty, the games, and cannot understand that anyone would forsake Pax Romana for the ‘corpse god’.  

In our interview, Tsiolkas pulls out a gold cross hanging from his neck and reflects: “My Aunty Yianoula gave me this when I was 21 years-old,” he says.

“Now, I think of this man, a representative of god, who is humiliated, tortured, flayed and killed in public, and then over him a new system and thought develops… It is extraordinary.”

Looking at me, he adds with a laugh: “You remind me of Vrasas.”

I am flattered. I am Roman.

Damascus is visceral; it can be smelt and felt.

“I travelled to Jerusalem, to Antioch,” says Tsolkias. “I wanted to walk those places, to smell, to draw on them as a writer.

“The hardest thing is to write about a man of 2000 years ago. They weren’t us but were also like us.”

Tsiolkas sees postmodernism as a dangerous problem.  

“Our over-dependence on postmodernism has damaged our view of the past,” he notes.

Tsiolkas points to the work of John Boswell – a gay man who died of AIDS – on sexuality in the early church.

“He was a great scholar and deeply thoughtful theologian, yet I remember peers at uni telling me, ‘Don’t read that; [Father of post-modernism Michel] Foucault hated it’. Why? Because Boswell talks about love.”

Tsiolkas has no fear talking about current day public intellectual Jordan Petersen, who ignites controversy.

“I love listening to his analysis of bible stories,” he says. “He is a classical Jungian and his analysis of Cain and Abel is fantastic.

“People say, ‘How can you listen to him; he’s blah, blah…’ And I say, ‘Look, I may not agree with him on everything but I am interested in what he has to say’.

“When we were at uni, he would have been a smart – albeit conservative – Jungian thinker. Why such vitriol towards him?

“He has become a hero because we have allowed that to happen, because we are so scared to talk about anything and we know less and less about history.”

Tsiolkas likens Peterson to Joseph Campbell, the American Professor of Literature who became famous for his work in comparative mythology and religion, and notions of the archetypal hero.

“I guess not many read Campbell now, or they would denounce him as well,” Tsolkias laments.

Denouncing, cancelling, attacking in public, is what they did to Paul, Jesus and others 2000 years ago. Perhaps, people today are not so different after all.

In Damascus, Tsiolkas tries to make sense of a “human Paul and a human Jesus”.

He does not believe in Jesus the god or the resurrection, but he cannot discount the immense moral and ethical impact of Judaism and Christianity.

“I love much in Christian ethics but I do not love the division between the flesh and the soul,” he says.

Tsiolkas relates more so to Timothy.

“He has a Jewish mother and the Greek pagan father; I attempted to reconcile the two sides, Judaism and Hellenism.”

“We are in a dangerous period where people no longer know history.

Damascus, the place, is about similar things now as it was 2000 years ago. Masses of refugees leaving a burning homeland, speaking in Syrian, but Tsiolkas is critical of our contemporary understanding.

“Young Woke and Old Woke people have such a limited knowledge of history,” he says. “Like, what do you mean when you say ‘white’? What is a Georgian? What colour is a Lebanese person? Why is a Greek white and a Turk not …”

Tsiolkas has shaken off his Marxism, “I am not longer a Marxist you cannot look at the 20th Century and still be a Marxist.”

“One thing that I have set for myself in 2020 is to read Adam Smith.

“I did not read Adam Smith during my uni years, even Marx refers to him, I never read Smith because some lecturer said that it would corrupt me – its such as bloody religious attitude.”

“One thing that I have set for myself in 2020 is to read Adam Smith.”

Tsiolkas likens Marx to Judaism and Christianity

“How can you understand ethics without Judaism and Christianity and how can you understand capitalism without Marx?” he asks.  

“We are in a dangerous period where people no longer know history.

“Look at Greta Thunberg she is Martin Luther’s interpretation, through Paul, of morality and I ask how do we not know this right now?”

“Have we forgotten the danger of the Puritans, or the Incorruptible Robespierre who filled the streets of France with blood?”

“Have our new intellectuals not read about the Committee of Public Safety?” he asks, not waiting for an answer..

For Tsiolkas Paul is “most important for the Protestants, the Puritans, he’s not for the Catholics Peter is for the Catholics.”

Damascus forced me to buy the Bible, to try to read again a foundational text. I entered Readings in Carlton and asked an older man working there if Paul’s letters to the Corinthians was in the Bible, or if I had to buy the New Testament? He laughed, “Ha…I wouldn’t know, I’m the last person to ask”

‘Strange’, I thought, given the shop window was dressed with Tsiolkas’ Damascus – a novel on the life of Apostle Paul.

Damascus ($32.99) is out now through Allen and Unwin.

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