"'They kill us, they crucify us, they throw us to beasts in the arena, they sew our lips together and watch us starve. They bugger children in front of fathers and violate men before the eyes of their wives. The temple priests flay us openly in the streets and the Judeans stone us. We are hunted everywhere and we are hunted by everyone. We are despised, yet we grow. We are tortured and crucified and yet we flourish. We are hated and still we multiply. Why is that? You must wonder, how is it we survive?' Based around the gospels and letters of St Paul, and focusing on characters one and two generations on from the death of Christ, as well as Paul (Saul) himself, Damascus nevertheless explores the themes that have always obsessed Tsiolkas as a writer: class, religion, masculinity, patriarchy, colonisation, refugees; the ways in which nations, societies, communities, families and individuals are united and divided - it's all here, the contemporary and urgent questions, perennial concerns made vivid and visceral."--Provided by publisher.
Tsiolkas’ previous novels, including Barracuda and The Slap, have been turned into movies. I wonder whether anyone will dare to make Damascus – The Movie. The novel skates on blasphemy – not a new charge against Tsiolkas – and its depiction of the brutality of the pagan empire surrounding and threatening the early Christians is sickening. The love between Paul and Timothy, and between Timothy and Thomas, is at the least obsessive, if not outright sexual. This factor alone will make it difficult for many Christians to accept the novel.
Three axes explore the different directions in which the early church was developing: Paul and Timothy represent the more orthodox view, that Jesus is the Saviour, that he has appeared after the resurrection, and that he will return soon and take into the resurrected life all the baptised.
Paul and Able (as Tsiolkas names the ex-slave Onesimus) represent the dilemma faced by the early church when Jesus does not return. Able believes that the Christians should ditch this teaching, and also baptise infants.
The third axis is Timothy and Thomas. This represents the view of some early Christians that Jesus was a great teacher and prophet who died – end of story. (Tsiolkas confesses in the afterword that this is closest to his view.)
The conflicts between these emerging theologies drive the story.
There are underlying themes that are common to Tsiolkas’ other work. The intense relationships between the men in the story reflect Tsiolkas’ own struggles with sexuality. The severity of a faith which requires its apostles to forsake family is portrayed fiercely. The treatment of the refugees who pour out of Judea after the destruction of the temple resonates with today.
I would not recommend this novel to fellow-Christians unless you really want to be challenged. It may be the book for a friend who is amoral and extremely secular, a lover of the violence in the Vikings series or Game of Thrones. Damascus has a depth and a challenge to believe that is absent from those.
Whoever reads Damascus will be moved and outraged. It will divide readers. Any novelist that can achieve those outcomes so forcefully is to be respected!
So here is Saul, fleshed out through the Tsiolkas filter. To his credit, he is pretty faithful to
The faithful of Tsiolkas’ Damascus are intensely human and struggling with their faith. In that, we have real honesty.