Review of Christos Tsiolkas, Dead Europe

Vintage, 2005, reviewed by Humphrey McQueen

A spectre is haunting Dead Europe – the spectre of post-Communism. Post-Communism isn’t the only ghost in this, the third fiction by the Greek-Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas. His new novel implies that after the breaching of the Berlin Wall, all manner of ghouls were let loose, taking flight with added fury following their long imprisonment.

Three weeks after first reading Dead Europe, I still don’t know ‘what I think of it’. Yet I’m aware of what the novel has made me ‘think about’.

‘Disturbing’ is the word I’ve been using to tell friends what the book’s like. It is disturbing at several levels. Many will find the sex disgusting, the cruelties unbearable. Not all will accept that the vampirism, still less the coprophilia, is redeemed by its contributions to an artistic architecture.

This commentary will be confined to two of the issues that Dead Europe has left me to ‘think about’. First, there is the thriving of superstition in a world conducted – supposedly – in accord with the Weberian rationality of industry and science. That discussion will lead into considering the place of Australia in a world where Europe is dead. What happens to Antipodeans when their other pole is no more?

In taking this approach, there is a danger of forgetting that Tsiolkas has created a fiction, not a post-Communist Manifesto. So, it’s salutary to begin by recognising Dead Europe as a ghost story, which opens with its own interior Grimm-like fairy tale. The protagonist’s mother is telling her five-year old son about the Jews. They murder Christian toddlers like him, she repeats, just as they murdered Christ.

His father enters and abuses his wife as a peasant, ignorant and superstitious. He has been a Communist, and has called his son ‘Isaac’ to honour a Jewish friend, and in defiance of his Greek Orthodox upbringing. Now he’s a heroin addict. After the Berlin Wall comes down, he gives himself to death.

These opening pages are deceptive. The writing is close to kitchen-sink naturalism. Parents quarrelling. Children terrified. As we read on, the first chapters seem out of joint with the rest of the novel’s inventiveness, which soars past mere fantasy and into a black ‘Magic Realism’. Although this commentary is about the ideas provoked by the fiction, this transition in style is crucial to an apprehension of the political insights on offer.

Isaac becomes a professional photographer, travelling through Europe, taking pictures. When he has them developed, their subjects have been distorted. A ghost has entered the machine, turning the naturalism of photography into Sur-Real images. That is also what happens to the prose, to the narrative, and to the characters, indeed to Europe. A dun-dreary naturalism is overwhelmed as Isaac descends into hell. He succumbs to a pernicious anaemia of the emotions. Without empathy, he fantasies as a sociopath would behave. He has contracted the virus of death.

Dante’s Inferno is never far from Tsiolkas’s mind. ‘This is Hell’, announces one character after another, whether speaking of the Balkans, Central Europe, Paris or Cambridge.

But Isaac has no Virgil to guide or explain. He stumbles deeper into the abyss by himself, or in the company of a particular ghost he is slow to recognise. Nor does Isaac – or his creator – act out Virgil’s role for us, the readers. Hence, one of the disturbing features of Dead Europe is that we have to think our own way through the seven circles of this inferno. Tsiolkas dares us not to turn back.

At the same time, he pictures a society that is turning back the clock to superstition.

Francis Fukuyama refurbished ‘the-end-of-history’ thesis before the Berlin Wall came down, observing that the socialist challenge to capitalism had failed. Henceforth, no alternative capital-I Idea would be there to drive History with a capital-H. Capitalism had shown that no other future worked.

The triumphalism on the Right, and the disarray of the Left, blinded both sides to a third possibility – atavism – which is the soil for imagining Dead Europe. Capitalism might have beaten off the future, but it has yet to vanquish the past. That much should have been clear in 1989.

The End of History as a clash of modernising Ideas did not leave the field free for capitalism. Rather, the End of History allowed for a resurgence of the peasant with her superstitions, her rituals of blood and soil.

Tsiolkas treats anti-Semitism as the matrix for other varieties of demonic possession. The Anti-Semitism in Dead Europe is not the version that emerged in the nineteenth century when the Jew became the bearer of Modernity, associated with Marx, Freud and then Einstein. Rather, the anti-Semitism that infects the denizens of Dead Europe is the old blood libel, the sweepings of centuries that coagulated into The Protocols of Zion. Hitler carried both strains, associating the Jew with disease and with Bolshevism.

The anti-Semitism that over-takes almost all the characters in Dead Europe is disturbing enough in itself. What is almost too terrible to contemplate is that the circumstances that Tsiolkas sets up as a fiction are having comparable effects in reality.

Tsiolkas is not another literary parasite on the Shoah. He does not lean on genocide as a platform from which to sound off ethical.

Instead, the personal ghost in his fairy tale is of a Jewish teenager. That boy is murdered by the peasant couple he has paid to protect him from the Nazis. The Six Million shadow that singular murder. Yet such a slaying could have happened at any time in the previous 1,000 years. His betrayers are driven by superstitions, not by ideology. To complete the portrayal of a pre-Modern era, his corpse is savaged by wolves. Then it is exorcised from Christian soil to ward off plague. The boy haunts Isaac as a phantom lover. In the final sentence, he assures Isaac’s mother that she is not condemned to be alone ‘for all time’. No. He, the wandering Jew, will be with her ‘for all eternity’.

Tsiolkas can make the most unreconstructed Rationalist accept that other people could treat the superstitions that drive his narrative as if they were actual forces in their lives.

Around the time that History ended, the very conservative US columnist, George Will, made a telling point against small-l liberals. He alleged that they are so rational that they think everyone else will behave as rationally as the liberals like to think they do. The force of Will’s remark applies even to those of us, including Tsiolkas, who recognise all the flaws and hypocrisies within small-l liberalism. Dead Europe is the most recent obituary for the cheery optimist.

How often has the death of Europe been announced? While Oswald Spengler was brooding over his manuscript of The Decline of the West, Thomas Mann in The Magic Mountain was mocking the society’s fascination with illness portraying the continent as a vast sanatorium. Throughout Mann’s life, he wrestled with the Wagnerian equation of death with sexual ecstasy. Like the ‘End of History’, the death of European culture became a motif of Modernists, who were accused of its murdering tradition.

So is it Europe as a society or just European high art that is dead? High art everywhere in the West has been moribund for decades. Creativity in its visual arts is confined to commercial sponsors arranging block-busters. The theatres and concert halls operate as Revival Houses, so that the 1950 call to ‘Burn down the opera houses’ was already superfluous. The wannabe radicalism of the Post-Modernists is a pale reflection of the Modernists.

My own visits to Europe have never left me feeling that it was dead, although the presence of killing is everywhere. The most expansive evidence are the graveyards from the Great European War. Across Paris, marble plaques

announce: ‘Here, for the liberation of Paris fell …’ and then a name, followed by a
date in August 1944. The unnamed Germans who shot those Frenchmen and women have no markers, yet they too died on the streets where we promenade. There is the wall in Père Lachaise cemetery against which the Communards were massacred in 1871. These three sites are within eighty years and eighty kilometres apart. Across the channel, every stone in Bristol was mortared with the blood of a slave bartered by that city’s merchants. Go back through 3,000 years of what European history and every square metre becomes a crime scene. Europeans cannot forget that they inhabit a slaughterhouse. Like the rest of us, they need to be selective about which massacres they remember.

When I was in Munich in 1987, the Christian Right was battling to restore the one building that still showed war damage. It had been a military HQ. The same tidying up has since befallen the cathedral in Dresden. That bombsite was once among the most eloquent of anti-war memorials, more so than Hiroshima Park. Now the shell has been rebuilt into just another venue for tourists to worship. Such restorations are erasures, the death of memory about killings that were being blasted into stone only sixty-years ago. Where ever I walk in Europe, I have the sense that another human being has died on each footfall.

In Australia, the killing grounds are not of our own kind, but of those who had to be cleared off so that we could try our luck.

*       *       *
Dead Europe got me rethinking relationships between our intelligentsia and what A. D. Hope called ‘civilisation over there’.

Ever since the First settlement, Australians have argued over how to relate to the Old Country. Was it ‘Home’? Could we Antipodeans recreate Europe here if only we imported rabbits and foxes? Since we had no castles, what self-respecting ghost would provide our novelists with the material for fiction?

In 1890s, the Sydney artist, Arthur Daplyn, called one of his canvases ‘The Australian Artist’s Dreams of Europe’. He showed images by Raphael, Michelangelo and Murillo floating above a sleeping painter. Shortly afterwards, the poet Victor Daley lampooned such painters in a verse called ‘Correggio Jones’:

His body dwells on Ganger Flat,
His soul’s in Italy.

From the late 1930s, James Gleeson began depicting a Europe populated by broken statues, forms which offered a sexual frisson. In 1944, Gleeson repainted Millet’s ‘The Sower’. Instead of spreading seeds, the peasant is depicted dispersing skulls. That canvas is the closest precedent for Dead Europe, among all the Australian arts.

For the rest, the solution to dealing with the weight of European and British cultures was to look elsewhere.

Margaret Preston was among the first to break with the European model. Between the wars, she sought a local forms and colours by studying Indigenous and then Asian arts. Painters were slow to follow her into Asia. Fairweather arrived and Donald Friend left for there. The 1950s saw potters and architects look to Japan for ideas to escape from the prevalence of Derby ware and the Spanish Mission bungalow. Asia also inspired composers such as Peter Sculthorpe, Barry Conyngham, Anne Boyd and Peggy Glanville-Hicks.

During the 1960s, backpackers trekked through Asia on their way to huddle in Earls Court. From then on, the Asian experience popped up in local fiction. This way of escaping from Europe as the other had its vogue, with lots of money thrown at it. The chroniclers were usually journalists and diplomats striving to be novelists, with few connections outside their cocktail circuits. The Jindyworobaks eradicated the metaphors of English Pastoralism. In turning away from Europe, some Australian poets looked to the United States and its Beats and later a concern with language rather than moral content. In these choices, art followed trade. Latin America spiced some local writing with Magic Realism. Africa remains the Dark Continent to our literature.

The non-fiction side has been more innovative.

In volume one of A history of Australia, Manning Clark was naughty enough to transport the clash of eighteenth century cultures to the open prison of Botany Bay. The Enlightenment, the Protestant Ascendency and the Church of Rome were confined to a village squabble.

In his Songs of Central Australia, Ted Strehlow did a balancing act. On the one hand, he put those Arrernte poems on the same plane as the Great Tradition of the West. On the other, by making that connection, he claimed equal greatness for the Arrernte.

The finest of these challenges to the centrality and primacy of Europe remains European Vision in the South Pacific. In 1960, Bernard Smith showed that evidence from our end of the globe turned the science and arts of Europe upside down, and inside out, whether with Darwinism or landscape painting. He documented the fatal impact of the Pacific on European traditions.

To sum up this assortment of reactions, some promoted Australian experiences, others looked elsewhere in the world for stories or style. None challenged Europe on its own ground. Before the 1990s, the only novel by an Australian to take on contemporary Europe was Christina’s Stead’s The House of All Nations (1938). Australia was not a player in what has been praised as a fictional version of volume two of Marx’s Capital.

The partial nature of these disengagements from and rebukes to our Great Mother highlights what a rupture Tsiolkas has achieved.

John Carroll’s assault on the humanist tradition in The Wreck of Western Culture (1993) is as relentless, but has little of the complexity. Where Tsiolkas is subtle, Carroll is shrill. Dead Europe is embedded in the culture it has come to bury, as Tsiolkas puts his knowledge of Humanism to work in a creative re-imagining. By contrast, Carroll flaunts a slender acquaintance with canonical works to indulge in rancour.

Despite the want of any previous corpus of criticism of Europe as ‘dead’ from Australians, it is no that Dead Europe has come out of nothing local. Tsiolkas is leaping ahead of a project which he lets us now perceive had started with the two Moorhouse novels on the League of Nations (1993 and 2000), got bush-whacked by Helen Demidenko’s The Hand that Signed the Paper (1994), before it found its bearings again in Rodney Hall’s The Day We Had Hitler Home (2000). In 2003, playwright Stephen Sewell wrote Lies, Myths and Propaganda in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America, an epic which took on the Last Superpower with the sweep and desperate resolve found in Tsiolkas.

This sketch of precursors leads to a key question: Are Australian writers entering upon a moment of cultural matricide? Of less significance is whether their books are a revenge on Europe for having made us cringe.

One difference between Tsiolkas and this trio of Anglo-Celts is that he is a wog, and so had to make different adjustments to both the ‘here’ and the ‘there’. Tsiolkas has contributed a Greek-Australian tragedy, one stalked by the Fate and vengeance of the Athenian dramatists.

Isaac’s mother embodies peasant superstition. She personifies what is dead in Europe. Isaac does not kill his mother, as Orestes did to revenge his father Agamemnon. To flay Europe, as Tsiolkas does, his protagonist must injure his mother. Since Dead Europe is a ghost story, the killing is not physical, but spiritual. She brings him back to life by feeding her son with drops of her own blood. She convinces herself that this re-birthing has been at the price of her immortal soul.

The Classical dramatists grappled with a moral order in which Gods punished men for obeying the law. The dilemma for those philosopher-playwrights became how to break the cycle of killing and vengeance?

In Aeschylus, Orestes is freed by the casting vote of Athene, who can excuse matricide since ‘no mother gave me birth’. Plenty of seemingly rational Europeans and Australians would be delighted to adopt that solution to the problems of the world: ‘Ask the Goddess.’

If one lesson is clear from Dead Europe, it surely must be that nothing good is to be gained from casting about in entrails, consulting the spirit world. Almost as insistent is the message that the power of superstition cannot be contained if belief in its puissance is denied, or its persistence dismissed as the property of ignorant peasants.

How will the Europeans react to Tsiolkas’s autopsy? The elites of Europe have long sought the savage here. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the genteel English found that titillation in Nolan and Whiteley. The Germans still do with Koori kitsch. Will the Europeans do the same with the indictment of Dead Europe? Will they revel in this rejection of them? They could well shower Tsiolkas with prizes because he has allowed them to go on seeing Australia as the primitive. In that misreading, he will have proven the superiority of Europe even unto death?

A novel cannot establish the death of a culture or society, and should not be chastised for failing to document its case. The standards of proof for a fiction derive from its literary form. Is a character or event psychologically true?

On this count, Tsiolkas might have swallowed a couple of clichés. Tsiolkas alludes to one trope when one his characters mentions Henry James:

I have met very few Australians, Isaac, but I have always been struck by their innocence. They remind of a character from Henry James, they have an innocence that the Americans have now lost. (p. 282)

The Europeans are dead: the New World is alive. Isaac is restored to life by being brought back to Australia. His rescue depends on several kinds of love as much as on geography. Yet a suspicion remains that the novelist has found a happy ending for his fairy prince by a change of stage scenery.

A companion to that dead way of thinking is to treat the history of a society as the maturation of an organism. Accordingly, settler Australia is a child in the process of growing up. More than once, the dead Europeans tell Isaac that Australians are children. Patrick White used to say we were ‘kiddy-dults’. But the accusation in Dead Europe is different. The dead Europeans are telling Isaac that Australians are children because they have not known the pain of the twentieth century. The accusers come closer to White’s portrayal of the Jewish refugee, Himmelfarb, whose suffering has placed him among the unhappy few who will be Riders in the Chariot.. A woman immigrant in The Eye of Storm dies of all she remembers.

Through his story telling, Tsiolkas reminds us why that judgement is less true than it once might have been. Immigrants, such as his parents, carried those burdens here, and passed them on to their children. On the fictional plane, the evidence for that legacy is in the superstitions that consume Isaac’s mother.

But it is not just peasant women from the Balkans who are victim to the belief in spooks. The public’s reaction to the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain showed that the ghost have not been laid here. That family tragedy got served up as a sacrifice in the desert. Jehovah’s Witnesses became ‘the Jew’.

The intelligentsia are not immune. A few months back, I needed to recheck the translation of a passage from Hitler’s Mein Kampf with the original print-run. This time, the stack attendant retrieved a copy of the first edition. Inside was Hitler’s autograph, a tiny scribble. Working nearby were friends whom I thought would be interested to see this rare item. At least two had read Mein Kampf in later German editions. No one would come close enough to touch the autographed copy. I sensed that they feared that the hand that had signed the paper could reach out from the flyleaf and contaminate them. A comparable concern greeted Downfall. Some critics seemed to worry in case that representation of Hitler as other than a ranting lunatic would allow his malignancy to escape from the screen into society.

Australia’s pagan lifestyle and secular mentality have not protected us from the bunyip or banksia men. Nor has the fact that Australia has never had a peasantry to speak of, preserved us from triumph of mumbo-jumbo. We have as many phonies spruiking the Wisdom of the Elders, as much Ecological pap, and the other New Age hocus pocus as might be expected from societies that the IMF is wrenching out of a pre-capitalist past.

G. K. Chesterton observed that when we stop believing in God, we do not believe in nothing. Rather, we will believe anything. In this vein, Manning Clark was accused of pessimism for asking whether Australia would become another of the kingdoms of nothingness.

Dead Europe is bracing for readers who will chance getting wisdom by facing up to the worst. Only then will we be able to stare down the demons, as Bruno Bettleheim proposed in The Uses of Enchantment (1976). He justified the exposure of children to the violence and terror in Grimm’s fairy tales, which the U.S. Occupation had banned in 1945-46 as a source of Nazism. Bettelheim, a survivor of Buchenwald, accepted that children were frightened by such stories. But the children also saw the triumph of the good and the true and the beautiful. The conquering of threats in our imagination, Bettelheim argued, was part of how we approach adulthood

Remembering his involvement with the Spanish Civil War, the Mexican poet and essayist Octavio Paz stated: ‘No one who has looked hope in the face can ever forget it’. No one who has looked at Dead Europe can expect to forget its portrayal of degradation.

For the reader grasping at the onion of hope dangling over the pit of hell, Isaac finds a gleam in his relationship with Colin, the builders’ labourer with whom he lives in Melbourne. Their love now dares to speak its name, even though governments refuse to recognise its rights to property.

None of these musings amounts to one of the pinches of shit that nourish Isaac across Europe. My concerns and doubts are as nothing compared with the achievements in Dead Europe as a novel of ideas which is enriched by a compelling choice of language and delineated characterisations. Not many books keep turning over in my head for as long as Dead Europe.

The debate over Dead Europe will take many turns. How Australians respond to those attitudes will provide a measure of how far we have come from being what the fictional Europeans disparage as emotional children.

Humphrey McQueen

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