Friday, 3 February 2006

Review: Dead Europe, Christos Tsiolkas (2005)

Sophie and I would not be shaken from our determination to bury my father as he wanted. Please, my mother beseeched us, do it for me. What does it matter? Your father is dead. She was on her knees, she was banging the floor with her fists, she was tearing out her hair. I could tell that Sophie was wavering. I remembered that my mother was a peasant.
  —His soul would never forgive you.
  We got our way. My father was buried on unconsecrated ground.
  For his headstone we ordered a small rectangular stone inscribed with his name and the dates of his birth and death. Underneath, in Greek, we had the words: husband, father, worker. We asked the cheery Croatian stonemason to carve the hammer and sickle into the stone but the burly old man refused. On the day of the burial my sister and I painted the symbol crudely on the stone in her scarlet Max Factor nail polish. Like blood, it washed away in the first rain.

Blood, race, justice, death. The pace of this novel is rapid, the prose dense but airy in tone, evoking complex reactions in the reader. Christos Tsiolkas' Dead Europe tells two stories simultaneously, and they merge almost inexorably to form a spirited narrative covering half the twentieth century, and half of Europe. Europe's darkest obsessions and strongest passions colour the narrative in dark hues and Tsiolkas highlights them through the experiences of his primary narrator, Isaac — a second-generation Australian of Greek heritage with an incongruous name.

Fans of horror and science fiction would probably find this story just as compelling as I did, especially toward the end of the work, where the two stories intertwine — that of Isaac's pilgrimage through a changing Europe, and that of Lucia, The Most Beautiful Woman in the World, an mountain woman who, like a latter-day Lady Macbeth, taunts her husband until he agrees to carry out a task dictated by the demands of her supersitions.

And in the anti-Semitism of the novel we find a fitting counterpoint to the novel's exploration of moral justice and the difficulties of individual choice. Ingrained in the culture of the Old World, this persistent problem seems to touch many of the lives outlined in this book, propelling the narrative forward through a succession of brilliantly-handled scenes in Greece, Venice, Prague, Paris and London. Graffitti splash age-old messages of distrust and enmity across the façades of this sombre landscape.

Various themes emerge as the narrator's progress moves on apace, but not too fast. There is a discrete formula at work that sustains the intensity of the plot, revealing new facts and episodes only at the right moments. Even at page 29 we don't know much about him, not even his age:

It wasn't true that nothing had changed. It had been over twelve years since I had been in Athens and even after only two days I was aware that this was not quite the same city I had visited when I was twenty-three. The bilingual blue street signs had not changed, nor had the sun and the dust. But the alleys and arcades behind Ommonia had been cleaned up. A giant inflatable corporate clown floated high above the entry to the old market square. Its monstrous grinning face mocked the Greeks smoking and drinking below. The five rings of the Olympic movement were everywhere, as were the red and orange circles of MasterCard. Arabic and Mandarin calligraphy competed with the ubiquitous Cyrillic and Latin scripts. Athens had changed.

Behind these adventures lurk the persons of his family and friends, most especially his father and mother and lover, Colin. And figures arising from Isaac's past intrude into the story as he lives through the weeks of turmoil and judgement. Not all is bad in Europe. Sometimes bad things happen in the New World, too. The uglinesses of Europe are balanced by the equally sharp realities of suburban Australia, which holds its own threats, its own measures of distrust:

[The teacher from Prague] often invited me to his house where he and his chain-smoking wife fed me books and thick Eastern-European stews of dumpling and sausage, and I would listen as they debated politics and film and the history of the Enlightenment. Outside their cramped, messy lounge room, the neighbourhood bus would roar down a sleepy suburban street, old Australian women would wheel shopping trolleys, and young men in Chrysler two-doors would burn wheelies on the asphalt. They did their best to shut out this world. Thick red brocade curtains covered the windows and were never drawn. The house was dark and only lit by lamplight. There was always opera on the turntable. The world came in, nevertheless. Their daughter fell pregnant to an Australian; their son, forced to hide his knowledge and love of argument, attempted to assimilate to the dogged, proud ignorance of the Australian working class. That assimilation — it reminded me of my father's — took the form of narcotics. A conscious sleep. His parents took every blow with stoic resignation.

Tsiolkas possibly believes in the power of high culture to help people overcome obstacles in life, but does he also believe in the inexorability of fate? Is Colin right? How do you choose which path to take in life? but it doesn't really matter, in the end. This is a story driven along in rapid shifts and passages that sing with an ecstacy and joy such as may be ascribed to the simple luxury of travelling the globe. But travelling can be dangerous, as we find. It can also be entertaining:

  —You've picked an awful week to be in Venice, the woman said to me, smiling, as she headed back to the bar. Her husband was cleaning glasses by the sink and increased the volume on the radio to drown out the clattering sound of the rain. A young woman wearing a leather coat rushed in, dripping wet. Behind her shuffled a stooping old man in a long black coat; the rain had plastered his still-thick brush of white hair across his skull. He hung his soaked coat on a hook near the doorway, took a seat across from me, unfolded a large handkerchief and wiped his face and neck dry. When he finished, he clicked his fingers. There was nothing supercilious in his seemingly arrogant gesture. In fact, the woman at the bar looked up at him and responded by smiling and saying something polite to him in Arabic.

Soon after this interlude of peace there is a sharp confrontation involving Isaac and a man of Europe. Immediately before the following passage there is an act of despicable violence:

Sleep did not return to Lucia. She spent the night starting into the dying fire, watching a final red ember slowly burn itself out. When the sun came at last, its glow was warm and reassuring. She jumped out of bed and walked outside, looking down on the green fertile valley below. There were wisps of smoky white cloud on the mountain, there was a farewell lament from the last of the nightingales. She breathed in the morning, she breathed in the fresh sun and air.

Tsiolkas works hard throughout the novel to make the truths of this contemporary Europe attractive, interesting. For an Australian, this may not be an unusually difficult task. But understanding the complexities of the case are not so easy. Decidedly, the twin stories help to animate the drama of this problem. Lucia's actions have far-reaching consequences. Is Isaac destined to bear them? The favoured destination of many an Australian youth, Europe drives its spirit deep into the existence of the narrator.

I slip my camera into my backpack and Gerry drives me into Paris. Very soon the hideous suburban landscape is replaced by the prim and pretty façades and ornaments of architecture; what excites me is the darkness and the shadows. Sweat, drugs, excrement and the caustic traces of the city.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks! Interesting and helping me to read the book myself!