I RECALL Bishop Michael Marshall inviting me to imagine how different the course of Christianity would have been had the early disciple Ananias not bravely sought out the Christian-persecutor Saul (recently arrived in Damascus) to cure him of his blindness. Christos Tsiolkas’s unsettling biographical novel about Saul (Paul) and his contemporaries has just been awarded the Australian prestigious Victorian Premier’s Prize.
Tsiolkas depicts events from AD 35 to 87 through seven non-chronologically arranged parts, using the third-person present tense (for the four Saul sections), interspersed with three first-person narratives: Lydia (who met Saul in Philippi), Vrasas (Saul’s Roman jailer), and Timothy.
In his afterword, Tsiolkas writes that growing up gay made him feel alienated from the Church. While Paul’s letters have helped him to find solace through confusion and despair, Tsiolkas is a non-believer, but one who, like the gnostic figure of Thomas (Jesus’s twin brother in the novel), wants the teachings of Jesus — the love of the outcast and the poor — without the miracles and the resurrection.
Damascus’s world is one of troubled but authentic sexuality. Affection is expressed openly and non-erotically between Saul and Timothy and, later, between Timothy and Thomas. The vividly pagan context provides the constant growl of homophobia, and, along with the Jewish tradition, frowns on any behaviour that contravenes patriarchy.
Saul, Timothy, and Thomas, like Jesus, carry the cultural stigma of being unmarried and childless. But their Christian converts — Lydia, who leaves her marriage, and the slave Able (based on Onesimus in Paul’s letter to Philemon) — are outsiders, too. Only their belief in Jesus, who is all light (coarse-skinned, scarred with the pox, with thick lips, receding black hair, “the darkest eyes”, and a right-hand little finger ruined by carpentry), brings meaning to their lives.
Tsiolkas writes with an unflinching tough edge, evoking the brutal world of the Roman circus besides providing searing descriptions of childbirth and circumcision. For defacing a temple idol, the young Christian Jacob is raped and castrated, and his tongue is cut out.
A physical potency crackles throughout the muscular and supple prose, setting the bodily against the spiritual, and the grindingly bitter against anything hopeful. The early Christians’ mantras — “the saviour’s coming”, “truly he is returning” — are portrayed as only intermittently sustaining.
This is a startling and original novel that connects the reality and despair of Jesus’s crucifixion to the lives and courage of his early disciples.
The Revd Dr Paul Edmondson is a priest and Shakespeare scholar based in Stratford-upon-Avon.
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