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Tabula Rasa

Dead Europe

by Christos Tsiolkas, 2005, Vintage, Random House, ISBN 1-74051-194-8

Reviewed by Kyla Ward

I turned to Zirvan.
— I think I'm possessed.
He nodded, not at all thrown by my ridiculous statement.
— I am, I insist. Do you believe in possession, Zirvan?
— What do you believe you are possessed by?
— I don't know.
— What can I do to help?

Dead Europe, by Christos TsiolkasI hadn't read Christos Tsiolkas' previous works. I picked his new book off the shelf because the cover caught my eye and I liked that title, so ominous and blunt. I'd heard of Christos Tsiolkas as young, Australian, literary, cutting edge... so why did the blurb mention ghosts, ancient terrors and blood libel? Just what was I holding here, in my hand?

Isaac, the Australian-born son of Greek immigrants, is an art photographer who has never quite broken through to popular and critical success. The invitation to exhibit in Athens as part of an event "celebrating the achievements of the Greek diaspora" seems at the very least an escape. Leaving Collin, his long-term lover, he embarks on what is at first an orgy of sex, alcohol and self-pity. But visiting his mother's ancestral village, he discovers his family is supposed cursed. Examining the photos he took there, he sees a figure, a boy, that was not there at the time. Gradually he realises he is no longer travelling alone.

There is another narrative thread that starts almost a century earlier, when his grandmother Lucia is the most beautiful girl in the world. The two run on, twist and turn, until inevitably they meet. But the present is not a frame, nor is the past a picturesque backdrop (in fact, the book contains pointed criticism of any such view). The interweaving here is far more subtle. It is certainly the story of Isaac and his increasingly disturbing experiences, but it is also the story of his parents and their experience as "refos" in Australia. It is the story of their parents' suffering during World War II and the civil war that followed. It is a story that concerns Jews, Christians, Communists, Nazis, the shattering of the Eastern Bloc, love, faith, God and Hell. That it is still a coherent, indeed seductively readable novel shows what can be done when an author has the craft to equal his passion and knowledge.

This is without doubt a horrific book. The author is going as deep as he can into the darkest, nastiest vistas his settings offer. But don't expect the conventions: as in the sequence where Isaac visits the Venetian museum of the Holocaust and fails to feel anything in the face of the familiar images, what horrifies is often what lies outside, or to one side of the official story. It is what strikes Isaac, and the reader, personally. So perhaps as a consequence, it is also an incredibly sensuous book — again in no conventional way. It delights in smells and textures, trash, decay and bodily fluids. It revels in ugliness, makes a kaleidoscope of it. Beauty becomes something extreme, as violent as anything else in this world of bedrooms, back alleys and transit. "Your photographs are shocking, mate, they are. But they're beautiful. They're not filthy, Isaac. They're far from that. Don't you dare apologise for them, Zach." Issac is on a journey, from Melbourne to Athens and Prague, but also from what he believes himself to be towards something powerful and ghastly. It might be the Demon that haunts his family, but it might also be some kind of truth. No matter what drugs he takes or whether others (and his camera) see things in quite the same way, there is no question as to its essential reality. But neither is there pity or mercy. Some things cannot be forgiven and if rescue comes, and return to Australia, that too is horrifying.

The reader is in a privileged position here. Able to put all the pieces together that both Isaac and the other, partial narrators have missed — some of the most unsettling moments occur outside their knowledge. Feeling the full force of the various political arguments through their enactment in other times and places — and this book does contain substantial politics, with characters who have opinions and are not shy about presenting them. Sometimes it seems that the whole of Europe is arguing (or possibly fucking). The reader's own knowledge and experience of global events is constantly invoked — again, personalising the horror — and she is certainly expected to do her share of the work. It is perhaps this that differentiates the book, more than any thematic factor, from say, Anne Rice's The Witching Hour, which covers some very similar territory with its emphasis on the past, detailed characterisation and the old world influencing the new (not to mention sex and companion spirits). The two books could hardly feel more different.

My reading detected a certain amount of direct symbolism, such as Isaac's encounter with the American and the Russian in the section titled "The Nietzchean Hotel Porter" (yes, some characters argue Nietzche too). But with a mere 411 pages to contain it all, most every character and image works a double shift. The faded tattoo of a swastica on Collin's arm refers to Nazism and the Holocaust, but also to his fractured childhood and his and Isaac's love. It is this density, as associations pile up like torn paper, dead leaves and used needles, that gives the book its punch. The sensation that Isaac's world, and the Demon's, is simply real is at times overpowering. As to whether Dead Europe is a horror novel or some kind of literary redemption of the tropes, I suspect the argument may be interesting, but any conclusion would be artificial. What I do know is this is a book that engages every part of the brain, and now and then the stomach.

 

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