By Christos TsiolkasFiction Allen & Unwin
'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 their mothers and violate men in front of their wives. The temple priests flay us openly in the streets. 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 have to wonder, how is it that we not only survive but we grow stronger?'
Christos Tsiolkas' stunning new novel Damascus is a work of soaring ambition and achievement, of immense power and epic scope, taking as its subject nothing less than events surrounding the birth and establishment of the Christian church. 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, exile; 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.
In Damascus, Tsiolkas has written a masterpiece of imagination and transformation: an historical novel of immense power and an unflinching dissection of doubt and faith, tyranny and revolution, and cruelty and sacrifice.
Damascus recounts the life of Saul (later St Paul). Opening in 35 A.D. when he is still engaged in hunting Christians, this epic novel charts the development of the Christian church via Saul’s conversion, imprisonment and death alongside the experiences of those he encounters along the way: a Greek woman, Lydia, who seeks solace in a God who acknowledges her, and her daughter’s, suffering; a pagan man, Vrasas, who is charged with keeping watch over Saul during his imprisonment; and Timothy, Saul’s friend and companion.
This is a meticulously researched novel. Christos Tsiolkas’s Roman Empire breathes on the page, full of visceral and often violent life: the persecution of Christians, the abhorrent treatment of slaves, the suffering of women and girl children, and the fear inspired by Strangers of every description. Together, these depictions create a world that is both historically rich, and relevant in a contemporary context shaped by fundamentalism of various kinds, by a near-universal refusal to give shelter to the homeless, and by our deep – and deepening – socio-economic inequality.
Damascus is a deeply compassionate and affecting novel, which interrogates what it means to live as an ethical and moral human being. There are no saints in Tsiolkas’s version of Christianity. Everyone in this world is struggling with being human, which is the source and inspiration of both their universal character and the reader’s faith in them.
The world is in darkness. The hood the guards have placed over her head scratches at her cheeks and neck. She takes fleeting comfort from the smell of the greasy fibre, the odours of sheep and goat. From her first memory their bleating was part of her life. They were her companions during the day and over countless nights, when she’d join them in their rough stable to escape the drunken violence of her father and her brothers, and then that of her husband. The warm bodies of the goats had been her solace and her bed; they had been her work and her friends.
She also recognises another smell, far more noxious. Fear. How many others has this hood covered? The stink of their terror is soaked through the fibres. With every hoarse breath she too releases the acrid taint of fear. She must not let them know her dread. She prays. Our Lord is a shepherd, He is not a king or a priest or a master, our Lord is a shepherd. With every silent repetition of that prayer, the demon that is fear subsides. She falls into calmness.
The rope that binds the caul is loosened and a tremor of light battles with the darkness. The hood is snatched off her and the overwhelming sunlight burns her eyes. The world is white: blinding, terrifying white. At first there is only that brilliance of light. Then she discerns the shadows. And as those shadows take form she sees that she is in the centre of a circle. Surrounding her are bearded men, each one holding a rock. As her eyes adjust to the day, she can see the sun flaring off the wall of the Sacred City in the distance. Then she sees crows and vultures wheeling above her. They are in a gully—it is accursed ground. And with that thought, fear reclaims her. On this ground she will die. Piss runs down her legs, darkens her smock, streams onto the stony ground. Her hands are still tied behind her back so she cannot cover her shame. She drops to a crouch.
One of the men marches up to her and roughly grabs her shoulder, forcing her to stand. His nails dig through the cloth and bite into her flesh. But this pain she can endure. She stares at the man; he’s a youth, not much older than she is. His eyes are dark and pitiless. She knows those eyes, knows such contempt. He wants her to scream, to curse, he wants her to hate him. And she wishes she could curse, could strike him dead with her words. Then she remembers the shocking and unbearable commandment of the prophet. Love him. Love him as if he were of your blood. She shudders, she leans forward, her lips graze his cheek.
‘Whore!’ He strikes her with such force that she sprawls across the dusty ground. She sees him marching towards her, she sees his foot lift. She closes her eyes, bracing for the kick.
‘Enough.’ The priest’s command is sharp. She dares open her eyes. The man has returned to his place.
She struggles, falters, wavers to her feet. This time she sees an old man and a boy standing beyond the circle in the shade of a laurel. From the splashes of dye across their cheeks she recognises them as deathworkers. They will return her body to the earth when her soul ascends to the Lord. A little beyond them stands the man who tricked her. How gentle his questions had been; his sympathy almost womanly. She fixes her gaze on him, his broad forehead, the receding coils of his black hair. He looks away as soon as her eyes meet his. Fear. She sees that he too is filled with fear.
The young man who struck her has raised his arm, stone held high above his head.
‘Adulteress!’ he roars. ‘Ask the Lord to pardon your wicked sins!’
The circle of men rumble assent. At the meanness of that charge, she begins to weep. Her eyes turn again to the man who’d seduced her with his false kindness. She had believed him to be as she was, bonded to the Saviour, trusting in the marriage of their fellowship, understanding that she was now married to her brothers and sisters. He had nodded in fierce agreement, as if he too comprehended that real marriage wasn’t the ugly, forced rutting she had experienced with her husband. After discovering friendship, knowing kindness, awaking for the first time to a world in which men need not be cruel, how could she return to that vileness? And he had nodded and agreed. She had been drawn to his sympathy. Yet it had been his testimony which had condemned her.
Her innocence and anger fortify her. She is no whore and she has not betrayed the Lord. She faces her accuser. He will not look at her. Her mouth is dry but she must speak. She doesn’t care about the other men in the circle. She wants that coward to hear her words.
‘If you are without sin, then cast your stone.’
One of the men steps forward. ‘Shut your ungodly mouth!’
She spins to face the speaker and as she does the first rock smashes her shoulder. She stumbles and falls. A rock slams into her neck, it steals her breath. Another rips open her brow. And then she hears the crack of the world splitting, as if the heavens above are tearing. There is darkness. There is blood in her mouth. There is a pain so terrible that she knows it is not the world that is breaking but her own body.
And then the darkness lifts and there is light.
The men keep hurling the rocks but the girl is dead and so justice is done.
The priest hurries through the prayers, conscious of the pulsating heat of the rising sun and the black swarm of flies already descending on the pariah’s body. The white prison shawl is dark with blood. As he intones the last word, the men quickly bend to drag their hands along the ground, rubbing the grit across knuckles, fingers, palm and wrist, beginning their purification.
The priest turns towards the south gate of the city and the men follow him. Not one of them looks at the bowed man, hunched on his knees, his head and body twitching in furious prayer.
Saul looks up only when he can no longer hear their footsteps. He calls a final invocation to the righteous Lord. He forces himself to look at the body of the dead girl. The old deathworker has dragged his cart up to the corpse, calling for his apprentice. The boy jumps to attention, peels off his tunic and skirt, then wraps the cloth around his mouth and nostrils. Naked, he rolls the girl over. A splinter of shattered jawbone has pierced her chin and the split gash is the pink of meat laid on a butcher’s trestle. Saul leans forward and retches.
The old man looks at him, then strips. Every bone is visible through the scarred membrane of his aged skin. Years of poverty have sculpted him into the very form of hunger. He too bends over the body.
Saul wipes the bile from his lips and chin. ‘Don’t bother searching her,’ he calls out. ‘She had nothing.’
The old man pokes at the body, not in the habit of believing anyone. Then, with a shrug, he nods to the boy. The boy stands and turns to Saul.
‘Uncle, what was her crime?’ He is Arab, both in tongue and in the shock of the hood of flesh that collects and covers the head of his sex.
‘She denied the Lord,’ Saul answers in Syrian, ‘the Lord of her people. She abandoned her family. She had to be punished for her blasphemy.’
At this, the old man snorts. ‘She was just a chick of a girl—what does she know of blasphemy?’
He wipes his nose and rubs his hand across his straggle of chest hairs. His next words are a sneer: ‘Did you hunt her down? Was she one of yours?’
As if Saul were a filthy mercenary, a slave trader, a collector of tax for the dirty Romans.
A thousand curses are on his lips. Shut your foul mouth, you Arab piece of shit. Child of a whore. But no sound comes forth. His head is heavy, the light is banished and the curses are snatched from his lips. The din is a madness in his head, and he has to cover his mouth to keep the words from escaping: If you are without sin, then cast your stone. Brazen, unholy words; the devil’s words. He knew those words were for him, that she was judging him. As if he were the one who stood condemned.
‘Are you ill, uncle?’ The naked boy is before him, his hand raised, seemingly about to touch Saul.
He jerks away from the filthy deathworker. ‘Do your foul work,’ he spits at him. ‘You’ve been paid.’
Saul turns from them, abandons the judgement ground, and climbs up the hill, thistles scratching across his calves. He can hear the vile old Stranger laughing; he hears the thud as the girl’s corpse is thrown onto the cart.
Someone calls out after him; the torrent of violence in his head is such he can’t discern if it is the apprentice or the old man.
‘Do we bury her or do we burn the cunt?’
To earth or to fire, the girl is lost to the Lord. He does not reply.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist