Dead Europe by Christos Tsoilkas
Well, there’s two synopses (synopsi?). The book is kind of two books, although they come together like a yin-yang at the end.
One book is the story of Isaac, a struggling Australian photographer who is in Europe on some sort of arts grant thingo (I hate the term ‘arts grant’... I start thinking of ‘installations’ that make no sense, you know, some artist gets $100,000 to stick a red broom up their arse). Isaac starts in Athens, Greece, then visits the Greek village his family came from, then travels to other cities in Europe, ending up nearly dead in a hospital bed in London. Throughout his journey he longs for his de-facto partner Colin in Melbourne, but obviously not longingly enough to not cheat on poor Colin. Our very gay friend Isaac manages to have heaps and heaps of rugged, blood-and-gore sex on his journey.
Oh, there was one tender sex scene in London, but that was over in a flash. Oh, and once, having a bizarre attack of heterosexuality, he cunnilingus’d a Brazilian woman in a train because he could -- “... smell the velvet in her cunt” --- Page 256 – The ‘velvet’ to which he refers is her menstrual blood, which he wanted to drink. As she orgasms, he comes in his pants and then develops a kind of bloodlust for the rest of his journey. He may or may not have stayed with a ghost in France.
The other half of the book is the story of his maternal ancestry, starting with his great-grandparents in a remote village in Greece who end up as ‘refos’ in Melbourne.
This book is very gay, and by ‘gay’ I mean homosexual. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, other than the fact I am not homosexual, so every time there was a gay sex scene and loving descriptions of cocks and arses I kind of flinched. I imagine gay dudes suffer the same case of, “Whatever, let’s just get on with the story” every time they have to read erotic, sensual or even implied descriptions of heterosexual sex, which is probably 95% of all such material (guessing – I only have anecdotal evidence of this based on all TV shows and movies). Isaac likes it rough too. The more pain, the more messy the fluid spread, the more debauched, the more vulnerable his sex partner, the more fucked-up they are... the more he likes it.
Having heaps of gay sex is not BAD, as such. It doesn’t make it a bad book. It just means that someone like me, who has zero interest in and receives zero titillation from rough gay sex, gets occasionally sidetracked. And there’s a lot of it. Unlike watching a film with a gay sex scene, I can’t just go and put the kettle on. With a book, I come back with a cup of Liptons and the words, --- “Only his cock was exposed. He lay the boy on the podium, turned him onto his back, lifted the boy’s thin smooth legs over his own tuxedoed shoulders, and he entered him... a shower of semen arced, reflecting silver as it was touched by the candlelight”--- Page 225-226 are still there. I raise my cup of tea to my lips and think, "Hmm, must root a chick in the next month or so."
Every second chapter is the story of Isaac’s journey through Europe, and so every second chapter there’s guaranteed to be either rough gay sex (usually on drugs), vomit, piss, shit, pain, tears, sweat, violence and blood. Always blood.
Some of it was fascinating, most of it was gross. In the author's defence, it was meant to be.
Everything else. There are three aspects to the novel that I fucking loved, and had me gripped.
From start to finish, the discussion of Jews is paramount in both the story of Isaac’s journey and the story of his family.
There is a very direct Jewish plotline at one point, set back during WWII when Isaac’s grandparents, young newlyweds at the time, hide a teenage Jewish lad from the Nazis. They do this at the behest of the boy's father, who gives the young newlyweds all his treasures and money and is never seen again. Now, at the same time, the young newlyweds are having trouble conceiving a child, so Lucia, the beautiful young wife, fucks the poor Jewish teenager, gets pregnant, doesn’t tell her husband it's not his child, and instead, asks her husband to kill the Jew... ---“It is by protecting that bastard Hebrew that you are condemning your soul”--- Page 118.
It is one of the more powerful chapters/sequences of a novel I have read in quite some time. Indirectly, throughout the book, the discussion of ‘The Jews’ and anti-Semitism is discussed in great length and referenced in a multitude of ways.: The general anti-Semitism of your average European (something I noticed when I spent a couple of years there), the fact that Isaac’s boyfriend had a swastika tattoo and had once defaced a Jewish cemetery, the fact that a few Jewish characters appear and disappear, coy, gloating or otherwise of their Jewishness. It is indeed an astute observation Christos is making, one that is largely ignored, but I have been acutely aware of myself for many years: That anti-semitism DEFINES some people – hell, it defines some nations, and it envelopes people, and obsesses them, and they mythologise the Jews, even when they are trying to be impartial, and the whole Jewish thing is MASSIVE when studying the history of Europe and the current state of affairs in the world. It just ain’t discussed in that context. It’s swept under carpets. It’s denied, even. It deserves a whole book (and I’m sure many have been written) but Christos hammers it home from start to finish, from every different angle, from different voices, in different tongues, and he does it beautifully, powerfully and artistically.
The next pro is his description of the dying Europe, the Europe in decay, as seen through the eyes of an Aussie Greek. I’m a bit of a philhellene myself, and I lived in Athens for 18 months so I’m always eager to read anything about a Greek by a Greek. The fact he’s an Aussie Greek makes it even more familiar to me. His descriptions of Athens and the Greek villages were spot-on, and it was convincing enough for me to open my mind to anything he said about the rest of his journey through Europe. There’s a lot of referencing to Europe simply being ‘different’ to Australia. And it is. There’s something about Australia’s open-spaces and lack of architectural history that makes Europe an alien place. Not better or worse, just alien, and the ‘decay’ of Europe does do something to Australian minds. It decays us. We see a crumbling building, we crumble morally. I can’t explain it, but I got there and all I did was crumble (having a lot of fun in the process). In all of Isaac’s travels he meets exhausted, debauched, confused and angry people...and they seem normal, as if that’s all that Europe can offer. Isaac ends up decaying so far he winds up nearly dead in a London hospital – this is explained as being somewhat the result of a curse on his family, somewhat Isaac’s own bloodlust / delirium, Europe’s decay and perhaps just a good old virus. Or all four. It’s not clear, but hell, I didn’t want a medical explanation. Whatever the case, this is not a travel book – there’s no Eiffel Towers, Parthenons, wacky folk dancers or tours of the Vatican with a thermos and a sesame biscuit. It’s a Europe of prostitution, drugs, crumbling buildings, ancient blood fueds, racism, porn, bashings, beatings, poverty, casinos and pure beauty all rolled up into one experience – decay.
It reminded me of this painting:
The final pro is the whole back-story of his maternal ancestry. It starts like a fairy-tale: ---“High in the mountains , where the wind goes home to rest, lived Lucia, the most beautiful woman in all of Europe” --- Page 15. And it just gets better from there. It’s a tale of bickering superstitious Greeks, and who doesn’t like a tale of bickering superstitious Greeks? Kazantsikas is one of my favourite authors ever (Zorba The Greek and Christ Recrucified – my two favourites), and Tsoilkas’s tale is like one of his. It’s fucking fantastic, horribly violent at times, but fucking fantastic. There’s devils roaming, beautiful women, wars, infanticide... it’s got it all, and it’s a ripping yarn and I wish it was a book of itself, even though Tsoilkas quite nicely converges the two stories at the end.
All in all, a pretty good read, and the fact the author has to work part-time as a vet nurse is an indictment on the Australian literary community.
I give it a B-minus.