Christos Tsiolkas, Dead Europe, Vintage, Random House, 2005
At the 16 June launch of Christos Tsiolkas’s latest novel, Dead Europe, I listened to the author speaking about his struggle to come to terms with diasporic dilemmas, a globalising world and the punitive hostility to homosexuality of the three major monotheistic religions. He expressed his concern to expose the anti-Semitic fears and hatreds animating the resentment of ancient, modern and post-modern Europeans reacting to their history of displacements, and to depict the ghostly deformities of a European peasantry in its death throes. The audience loved it, but I came away disconcerted. I couldn’t help but feel that Tsiolkas was disingenuous in his special pleading for his novel, which is a story about an Australian-Greek man’s exploration of personal and social identity in contemporary Europe. This sustained magic-realist work is strong on viscosities, rich in olfactory references and homosexual sex, and recycles grotesque Jewish and anti-Semitic characters in way that begs the questions: is this an anti-Semitic work of art? And, if it is, is it redeemed by sophisticated reading as literary fiction?
Structurally complex and inventive, the novel is scaffolded for a kind of ‘ghost-train’ ride into the superstitious strivings of the peasant forbears of the main character (in whom they are sustained) whilst travelling through the several hellish level crossings of the globalised here and now. A collision is unavoidable as the tracks of demonic possession begin to merge with those of diasporic exclusion, uprootings and loss. In this danse macabre, hope is a tangential indulgence lacking any substance except where interpersonal love can secure passion with sentimentalism as it somehow simultaneously dispenses with all illusions.
Tsiolkas’s protagonist, Isaac, is descended from Greek villagers and a cursed family background as a result of his grandmother’s infidelity with, and instigation of the murder of, a refugee Jew during the Second World War. His father’s deadly weaknesses were his unsustainable addictions to heroin and communism. Isaac is gay, his sexuality mentored in Australia as a youth, and he leaves his Australian lover to travel to Greece and Europe to reconnect with his Greek-Baltic heritage. His journey takes him on through Venice, Prague, Paris and England while the curse works through him.
He is a photographer and his work has been accepted for exhibition in Greece. Travelling there from Australia he meets up with a female cousin and her lover and they visit the village where Isaac’s mother was born. It is here that he discovers the nature of the curse working through him and his photography helps him identify its spiritual manifestations by providing him with mysterious images that were not in the frame when he clicked the shutter. The curse requires him to receive or consume blood to overcome nausea and exhaustion. As he travels on from Greece to the other European cities, he makes contact with former friends and family connections who introduce him to the realities of their desperately compromised lives. These encounters allow him to plumb the political viewpoints of the characters on topics such as artistic integrity and economic reality, ethnic cleansing and the Baltics, the failures of social democracy and Euro-capitalism following the decline of Euro-communism and so on. He has a series of one-night stands and an oral blood transfusion on a train and broods about the strength of his connection to his lover, Colin, back in Oz. Colin and Isaac’s mother come to his rescue when he is finally overwhelmed by Europe and the curse.
There are echoes in Dead Europe of Gregor von Rezzori’s 1969 novel Memoirs of an Anti-Semite. The main character in Rezzori’s work, Bubi, in Bucharest in 1933, becomes exasperated with the Jewish owner of a ‘seamy hotel’ who repeatedly accuses Bubi of using counterfeit coins to gain access to a room. In his rage Bubi yells at him: ‘Du-te’n pizda mati, jidanule!’ — a popular Rumanian curse, which made it no less nasty: ‘Get into your mother’s cunt, you filthy kike!’ However, Rezzori’s work ironises, satirises and exposes the absurdity of the anti-Semite’s efforts to shore up a faltering sense of social acceptance and self-righteousness through resort to race hatred and its convenient symbols. The novel satirises Jews who people its pages as well, but there is care to show the complexity of character and emotion accompanying the tensions of people trapped in tragic times.
Tsiolkas’s Jews, by comparison, are not people one can feel any pity or sympathy for, except, perhaps, when Isaac’s mother’s Jewish male progenitor is condemned to death by Isaac’s grandmother in order to deceive her husband and conceal her infidelity. Aside from this pathetic and filthy, but nonetheless sexually potent Jew imprisoned in a stinking subterranean dungeon, all the other Jewish characters in the realist strand of the novel are like Raskolnikov’s victim in Crime and Punishment: disposable humans of little worth.
In a typical scene, Isaac, visiting the Venice Ghetto — one of the oldest ghettos remaining in Europe — is in the home of an aged Jew, mute on account of having had his tongue ripped out. The Jew happens to notice Isaac’s gold crucifix and suddenly steals Isaac’s camera. He escapes Isaac’s grasp by biting and then spitting at him. Isaac, enraged by this behavior screams at him:
‘Give me back my camera, you fucking Jew.’ I had never uttered this curse before. A rush of power surged through every particle of me. It was as if I had been yearning to utter that curse since the beginning of time.
Isaac’s deceased, but formerly heroin-addicted, father had instructed his son years earlier that:
‘Fucking Jews, fucking traitors, they betrayed us, after all we did for them, after all the Party did for them. Fucking traitorous cunts, that’s what they are.’ He waved his pouch of heroin in the air. ‘Jew powder, Isaac, don’t forget.’
Isaac’s encounter with the Venice Jew, whom he is provoked to curse, is only one of several encounters with Jews who provoke or disgust him. Earlier, in Thessaloniki, while visiting the Jewish History Museum, Isaac is prevented from taking photographs of the exhibits by the caretaker. When eventually questioned by Colin (also an anti-Semite) as to how he felt at not being allowed to take photographs and what he would have liked to say to the caretaker, Isaac replies that he felt hurt because the caretaker had ‘treated me like dirt’ and that he wanted to say, ‘Fuck off, you paranoid Jew, I have nothing to do with this history’. Is Tsiolkas being ironic here? Isaac’s vulnerability to feeling racist rage is offset and tempered by his understanding of the cultural and ethnic antecedents of his upbringing and the education he has acquired. Nevertheless, the provocations to express racist feelings are ‘justified’ by the Jews peopling the novel. Tsiolkas’s Jewish characters overwhelm any recognition by Isaac, or a reader unfamiliar with actual Jews and anti-Semitism, that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are a forgery, or that Jews might not all be exemplars of misanthropic otherness.
Notable among these characters is Syd, ‘King Kike of Prague’, who appears in the midst of the novel with his enormously fat body, fierce overwhelming sweat, vodka and cigar-smoking breath, carrying wads of cash with which to pay off his troupe of cocaine-stimulated, pornography-producing flunkies and prostitutes as he commercially exploits their depravity and paedophilia, while indulging, of course, in his own. Syd’s father is in jail for murder and Syd himself is a very tough Jew reminiscent of the tough Jews so strikingly presented by Rich Cohen (Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons and Gangster Dreams, Cape, 1998) and theorised by Linda Grant (Defenders of the Faith, the Guardian, 6 July 2002). Paul Klebnikov, in his brave portrayal of Boris Berezovsky’s opportunism in Boris Yeltsin’s post-Perestroika break-up of the former Soviet Union, gave a much more credible account of a ruthlessly brilliant, allegedly Jewish, criminal without needing to rely on the obesity trope in Godfather of the Kremlin: the Decline of Russia in the Age of Gangster Capitalism (Harcourt, 2000). And Matti Bunz (Jews and Queers, Symptoms of Modernity in late 20th Century Vienna, University of California Press, 2004) would regard Syd as out of date with what he documents as the recent acceptance of Jews and Queers into the post-modern Viennese mainstream: but in Tsiolkas’s Prague both are still very demi-monde.
Syd, to use a statistical metaphor, is only the modal value in Dead Europe’s frequency distribution of standard deviant Jews. Gerry ‘the Hebrew’, a people smuggler, is living in Paris and has murdered a man and his wife who sheltered him during the war because the man became enraged when he caught Gerry with his wife. Gerry also breaks his own wife’s nose with a swift punch to her face, and it is suggested he once incinerated workers in his business when a mysterious fire broke out in his warehouse, after which he became rich.
These figures of Gerry, Syd and the Venetian and Thessalonikan Jewish characters, are the contemporary representations of Jewry Isaac encounters on his way stations through Europe, but they form the counterfoil to the ghouls that saturate the supernatural theme of the novel.
It’s not only the Jewish characters in this novel who are likely to dismay. Isaac, possessed by a ghoul, is antipathetic to most of the people he encounters in his chronic need for the sustenance that blood provides. The Greeks he encounters, particularly his cousin and her anti-Semitic partner, are entrapped by history as are the Jewish characters, but they have not had to deal with a legacy of race hatred like Jews and, importantly, are depicted with some sympathy. The non-Jewish characters in the novel are principally conflicted by either a meaningless and ignoble global proletarianisation or empty consumerism and middle-class ‘success’.
Isaac, in his self-confessed ‘pampered naivety’, guesses that he believes only in Colin. Colin is an ex-builder’s labourer waiting, like Odysseus’s Penelope, back in Oz. He is eroticised, as are a number of male characters in the novel, as being of ‘authentic’ working-class background and least stereotypically gay in their tough (but tender) masculinity. Colin has a swastika tattoo, acquired in his angry youth, a time when he achieved exhilaration desecrating Jewish graves.
That one word, Jew. That’s what made me feel alive, when I was pissing on that old Hebrew grave. I hated everyone and everything but they were at the centre of my hate.
During lovemaking with Colin, Isaac feels as if the anti-Semitic ink of Colin’s swastika tattoo has rubbed off on him, creating the same unbridgeable chasm for Isaac that separates Colin from ever feeling any sense of common humanity with a Jew.
One of the ‘achievements’ of this ‘novel of ideas’ is that moribund Europe festers within the perdition desperately shared by the wasted characters encountered by Isaac. They struggle to find some morsel of sympathy or understanding for the thwarting of their aspirations by a brutally indifferent post-Soviet Euro-capitalism. But unlike Michel Houellebecq’s novels Atomised and Platform that represent a predatory Europe hell-bent on corruption and torn apart by contradictory pretensions and desires, Tsiolkos eschews humour and parody for a sense of colossal bitterness and lost entitlement. And this bitterness and lost entitlement is sustained through the repulsive characterisations of his Jewish figures and tropes.
Will Dead Europe attract the same controversy that surrounded Helen Darville’s The Hand That Signed the Paper? The first hint came in Robert Manne’s concerns about the sustained intensity of anti-Semitic excoriation in Dead Europe that appeared in the second edition of the Monthly. In support of his concerns, Manne referred to the sequence of character and situation in this volatile and visceral novel. His review was immediately disparaged by Ian Syson and Jeff Sparrow’s News from Nowhere weblog. Manne’s credentials were ridiculed and he was caricatured as a kind of obsessive-compulsive censorious misreader of imaginative and complex literary fiction:
Manne’s problem is that most of the characters are anti-Semitic, even the anti-anti-Semitic ones are anti-Semitic at points. Manne seems unable to distinguish between this and the politics of the book or the author.