The Malta Independent 18 May 2021, Tuesday

Damascus

Noel Grima Tuesday, 30 March 2021, 09:36 Last update: about 3 months ago

Author: Christos Tsiolkas. Publisher: Atlantic Books / 2019. Pages: 423pp

Nothing could be further from the St Paul of the altars dripping silver, the red damask, the milling canons and monsignors of our 10th February celebration than this very raw book.

We have grown too used to the glaring face of Melchiorre Cafa's statue as it is carried around the streets of Valletta to notice the strangeness of the 'Apostle of the Gentiles'.

On the strictly theological level we have Eberhard Junkel's study on Paul as the real creator of Christianity. Tsiolkas does not go that far but in a note at the end of the book, he reveals he has been influenced by the apocryphal collection of Christian and Gnostic writings that were discovered in 1945 near Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, especially the so-called Gospel of Thomas.

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Then he goes even further and speculates that earthy Thomas was the twin of Christ.

As in other books he wrote, such as The Slap, we get the action described from multiple points of view, from different protagonists and in different circumstances.

We are speaking of the melting pot that was Asia Minor of the first century AD, when the Roman empire was expanding and crumbling at the same time, when the populations of that wide area were in a state of flux, when sects and beliefs were cross-pollinating each other.

In this cauldron of beliefs, a small sect somehow grew and flourished, more by the repression it occasioned and the sheer hatred it instilled in others.

It had one rock-like belief - He is coming back - and one principle of action - there was no social distancing between its members, an almost communistic sharing and breaking down of boundaries.

There are other things but one must not allow oneself to be shocked or one's judgement clouded. Such as that Christ was raped before being killed. Or that Paul was gay, the "thorn" in his side he speaks about, a repressed gay at that.

The book skips most of Paul's writings, claiming they came from the pen of his young assistant, Timothy, as dictated by Saul/Paul. The radical communism of the first believers more than makes up for this absence.

Damascus, of course, is the capital of Syria towards which the young enthusiast was going in search of more adherents of the sect he intended to round up when he had the experience which changed his whole life.

Astonishingly, he had never even met Jesus than in that "blinding" encounter.

Violence is rampant: against Christians by Jewish and Roman persecutors, against Romans by anticolonial zealots, against prostitutes and slaves by their masters. Christianity, with its exaltation of the weak and the meek, comes into this rough and raw world as a much-needed ethical enlightenment.

As a novelist, Tsiolkas writes mostly fiction animated by the spirit of ethical inquiry. The Slap, his 2008 worldwide bestseller, which has twice been adapted for television, explored the aftermath of an act of corporal punishment towards a child at a barbecue and exposed the shallow liberalism of the times.

His other novels are immersed in gay sexuality. In Loaded, 1995, he tells the story of Ari, like him a Greek-Australian, like him gay and like him at odds with his gayness, as he roams around Melbourne consuming a vast array of drugs and getting into trouble.

The Jesus Man is his second novel. It tells of three brothers from a Greek-Italian family and tries to understand the melancholy air that envelopes them.

In Barracuda, a talented young swimmer can get all that fame and success can bring, were it not clouded by his rage against the rich young people of the private school to which he gets awarded a scholarship.

Dead Europe, 2005, tells of a young Greek migrant, touring round Europe and revisiting the story of his grandparents in wartime Greece. The book, which was awarded, caused controversy with its depiction of anti-Semitism.

This book, Damascus, is, as I said, a very raw book that brings to mind, at times, some Isis documentaries, with gratuitous violence against women and gays.

It was Friedrich Nietzsche who said that Paul was the apostle of hatred. As depicted in this book, Paul is a self-hating repressed homosexual.

When things came to the big gear-change of the first century, whether Christ was coming back, Paul chose to believe in the Resurrection whereas Thomas, the doubting Thomas, believed that Christ's message is essentially one of love. 


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