‘Damascus’ is a recent novel by Christos Tsiolkas (author of The Slap), in which he recreates the peripatetic lives of followers of Jesus after his demise, particularly Paul (or Saul), Thomas (Jesus’ twin brother?) and Timothy, in that turbulent period when the Jews and the Roman Empire were challenged in their respective domains by this newly-emerging ‘sect’ of Christianity. Of course interpretations of Jesus’ teachings and gospels divided his followers, a central theme in the unfolding saga, as they argue intensely back and forth over the years in language that Tsiolkas cleverly makes authentic and archaic.
I wasn’t interested in the The Slap‘s portrayal of suburban Australia, either as a book or film, but I’d guess that this “historical fiction’ set 2,000 years ago is a surprising new direction. Apparently Tsiolkas left the Orthodox church in his teens after failing to reconcile the scriptures with his burgeoning homosexuality and struggled spiritually thereafter. Christos (meaning ‘anointed’ or Christ-bearer) however retained an interest in the foundation Christian period. In ‘Damascus’ he’s gone hard with gritty portraits of the blood and guts and suffering of those debauched and violent times around the promised land.
Putting aside (as if!) atheist prejudices, I persevered to the end of the story, and found it moderately interesting, albeit over-cooked and repetitive with the gruesome suffering and mental torture. Then I started to speculate that maybe Christos was writing this as penance for his lapsedness, but I’m probably getting carried away, imagining the psychological legacy of an upbringing of religious guilt.