Review: Damascus by Christos Tsolkias

It is a never a good idea to read too much into a book’s cover, but the image on Christos Tsolkias’s Damascus is curiously precise. It is Caravaggio’s Conversion on the Way to Damascus, depicting the moment Saul was felled by the light of Jesus. Over his short and often violent career Caravaggio perfected painting people at the knife-edge of conversion, the exact moment when dark gives way to light. In Damascus, Tsolkias achieves the same effect in words.

Damascus follows the life of Saul, the man who would eventually become canonised as St Paul. Saul is born into the cruel and violent world that is the first century near east, shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus. Jerusalem is under Roman rule. Jewish Zealots hunt political enemies, including people belonging to the cult that would become Christianity. Slavery is the foundation of the economy. Women are punished brutally for stepping outside of their role as child bearers and house keepers. Unwanted babies (girls, babies with disabilities) are taken to mountains and left to be eaten by animals.

Saul makes a meagre living exposing Christians to Zealot priests. He is ugly, unmarried and childless; “Your are no man,” says his sister. His repressed sexuality eats away at him. Then, on the road to Damascus, he is struck by light. Slowly, aided by early Christians, he becomes a follower of Jesus. The novel tracks his journeys through the near east spreading the word, and the people he encounters: Lydia, the first person Saul converts; Vrasas, a Roman former soldier holding Saul under house arrest; and Timothy, Saul’s beloved companion.

Damascus begins with a stoning, or more precisely with darkness, with a wheat bag thrown over a condemned girl’s head. It is an image that sets up the novel’s Caravaggesque battle between dark and light. Saul’s epiphany comes surprisingly early in the narrative, and it opens mid-scene, with no forewarning. It is brilliantly done, achieving a tricky balance of agony and ecstasy, terror and peace.

More than ever before, Tsolkias’s vision made clear to me the porous boundaries between Christianity and Judaism in those early years, a fact that is logical but difficult to imagine as the two religions have gone their separate ways. Christianity was as much a political and social movement as a religious one, one that compelled the downtrodden and brutalised with its message that “the last will be first” in the promised New Kingdom.

In his depiction of the near east, Tsolkias achieves a thrilling strangeness. Despite the familiarity of the Bible, he is at pains to show just how remote – morally, religiously, politically – this world was. At the same time, it is familiar: people are still divided by race and religion, the poor are still crushed by the rich.

The book’s other major insight is into the competition among Jesus’ followers to create the definitive version of his life. Tsolkias sets up this debate primarily through Saul and Thomas, of doubting infamy. Saul believes Jesus’s meaning was in his death, that the New Kingdom is yet to arrive and must be worked for. Thomas meanwhile doesn’t accept the resurrection, and believes the New Kingdom is already here, that the meaning of Jesus is in his lessons during his life. Between them they set up the age old question of how to live in a messed up world: revolution, or making peace with it?

Tsolkias has never been the most subtle of writers, and he revels in the visceral detail of this world: the scents, the sounds, the pain and suffering. There’s a lot of shit – people wiping it, getting covered in it, ingesting it.

The novel uses a tricky structure to simultaneously chart Saul’s religious awakening with his effect on others. One stream follows Saul, while interwoven chapters give us the voice of the people he encounters later in his life. It is a disorienting effect that adds to the strangeness of the world Tsolkias creates.

Overall it’s a book that impressed me (literary, politically, historically), but left me a little cold. But, as I awakened to Tsolkias’s painstaking attention to detail, I wanted to be reading it for the second time already.

Damascus is published by Allen & Unwin

Gay rating: 3/5 for closeted angst and some platonic man-on-man action (early Christians really liked to kiss each other #nohomo)

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