Tsiolkas chooses to eschew any reverberative power and glory of a traditional diction in his compelling and strange telling of the story but the mirror through which he shows this drama of the origin of Christianity is as dark and distorting as you could wish for.
That great German Jewish critic Walter Benjamin was not wrong to say that the history of civilisation is at the same time the history of barbarism. And Tsiolkas does the fullest possible justice to the brutalism of a world full of ghastly hates, of mutilations and drek, of atrocity and carnage, and sadism so rampant it is like the gaping mouth of hell.
We begin with Saul supervising the stoning of a young Christian girl for adultery who asks if they are without sin that they dare cast the first stone. Then we see Saul lacerating and jagged and intense in some abomination of a makeshift brothel. For a moment we think we know where we’re going and that Tsiolkas’ Paul will be seen through the dark glass of the thorn of the flesh he speaks of in his epistles.
But no, the sense of slime and torture and unspeakable cruelty is extended much further. There is a Greek woman, of Ephesus, who suffers the terrible grief of having a daughter born without an arm, left on a hillside to die. Eventually, she finds her way to Paul and the comfort of Christ but only after the narrative has crawled over the crushed bones of desecrated children.
And the whole logic and ambit of Damascus is like this. Its landscape of incident is bestial, appalling, full of accumulated atrocity and abomination.
So this is a very distinctive and personal take on the Paul story. Timothy, for instance, to whom Paul wrote epistles, is devoted not only to Paul but to Thomas, who is presented here not as the doubting figure whose unbelief was finally conquered by feeling the wounds of the risen Christ but as his twin brother who has no belief in a risen Christ.
Tsiolkas is influenced by the beautiful Gospel According to Thomas, the collection of Christ’s sayings that sounds disconcertingly like the Real Thing, though its emphasis is on a spirituality akin to that of the great mystics. “I am a movement and a rest,” this Jesus says.
But Tsiolkas does not dramatise any such syncretist hippiedom: his twin of Jesus is more the bluff voice of agnosticism that has to co-exist with any intimation of divinity, qualifying it and ultimately annihilating it.
The overwhelming atmosphere of this compelling, deeply serious book about the religion that shaped us is of a world of overpowering cruelty and this cruelty is rendered in a manner that could be mistaken for hysterical. But that’s not the case. It is a deliberate and deeply considered decision to present the terrible barbarism of the world comparable to and perhaps even influenced by that hardest to confront cinematic masterpiece, Pasolini’s Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom.
The paganism of Damascus exhibits the all but absolute cruelty of a paganism that flaunts its sadism. And the Christianity that comes like a messenger to mitigate this is unlovely and has little in the way of consolation save an impassioned kindness grounded in the derisory folly of a Messiah nailed to an instrument of torture.
Tsiolkas has written a very dark reckoning with the god of his Greek upbringing and the darker gods who came before them and skipped their way in blood through dances of torment. It is a hellish book full of poignant glimpses through a dark mirror – horrifying, disheartening and often rawly written.
It’s the work of a real writer, however, and it’s a gate that has to be entered with whatever hopes abandoned or forestalled.