Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas

Christos Tsiolkas pic
Greek-Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas

Writing historical fiction has many pitfalls, writers and writing guides will tell you, the most dangerous is, undoubtedly language. To the people of the eastern Mediterranean in the first and second century CE there were several languages: Latin for the military administration of the Roman invaders, Hebrew for schools and prayers, Greek for civil administration, and Aramaic for the person in the street, plus local languages and dialects. Rendering all this into English for readers in the twenty first century needs decisions. Traditionally, using modern expressions of the potential readers has been considered wrong; although Hilary Mantel took no heed of that with Wolf Hall where the dialogue is decidedly modern.

Tsiolkas too has made decisions. He uses the word ‘sex’ to refer to genitalia and ‘rutting’ to refer to sex; he notes what language characters use, Greek, Syrian, Latin etc.; his chosen lexicon contains many words of the extreme: death, light, darkness, heavens, honour, hades, blood, hate, etc.; and old words and phrases, like ‘beloved’, ‘betrothed’,  ‘begetting’, ‘we have much to be thankful for’, ‘he is wondrous’; no negative contractions; and violence, lots of violence. Life is cheap, monstrous, and death – as well as life – is slow, bloody, and full of pain; and it is dotted with modern expletives, ‘fuck’, ‘cunt’. There is no smiling while reading this book.

Generally his decisions work. Any frowns I found myself making over his use of language were minor and, as readers must, I went with him and tried to give in to his choices. However, as the story progressed I found this more and more difficult; phrases as ‘… he is singing the light’ , ‘he betrays the light’,’…the God is rapturous …’, ‘I am blinded in white flame’, ‘he has to bring him towards the light,’ ‘to never again be in light.’ So many uses of this word ‘light’ that such phrases, as they peppered the pages more and more in the later stages of the work, became meaningless. The language reminded me of second-rate TV evangelists who use generalisations and ambiguity to hide uncertainly, to impress, not to inform. I lost trust in the writer; I thought Tsiolkas himself did not know what he meant. And the editors must take some responsibility for this.

It is the story of the adult Paul, St. Paul, the Paul who has been credited with writing a large chunk of the New Testament, also known in Hebrew as Saul. Tsiolkas doesn’t tell the tale linearly, but in seven sections, each one concentrating on characters in Paul’s life, some in the 1st person, some in the 3rd: a young mother, Lydia, from Antioch whom he converts; his jailer, the crippled soldier, Vrasas, in Rome; his disciple Timothy. But also around Paul himself: his early persecution of Christians; his blindness, his imprisonment, his death?  jumping decades back and forth between 35, and 87 CE twenty three years after his death.

As a piece of imaginative writing it is astounding in its detail but the writer’s attempt to build the tale’s veracity for a modern readership failed for this reader. I was outside of the story, watching it, knowing it was just a story with no emotional involvement. He made too many little decisions but not enough big ones. Too many times I was told how a character feels, never shown. Tsiolkas lost me, disappointed me, but I read it, well, skimmed it, through to the end.

You can buy the Kindle, and other editions, here.

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