Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Christos Tsiolkas: Dead Europe Q&A.

Christos Tsiolkas
Christos Tsiolkas will be at the Paperback to sign copies of his new book Dead Europe on Thursday 16 June 2005, at 12.30pm.

This is Australian fiction that reflects a deep interest in the reverberations of history and religion in the modern world.
After the opening of his exhibition in Athens, Isaac an Australian photographer travels through post-communist Europe. Through his disturbing experiences and encounters the idea of a sophisticated, grand Europe is laid to waste in a confronting portrait of racism, poverty, displacement and resurgent anti-Semitism.
The story is layered between a tale set in a Greek peasant village during WW2, Isaac's travels through Eastern Europe to Amsterdam and Britain and his reflections on his life in Australia as part of an immigrant family.
This is a compelling novel that works on both a grand and intimate scale, it mercilessly portrays modern society and some of its horrors but is tender in its detail of personal lives.
Tsiolkas is the author of Loaded and The Jesus Man.
Christos Tsiolkas Q&A on Dead Europe
1) You have spent the last six years working on this novel. What was the driving force behind it? Did one instance in particular inspire it, or did it grow out of an amalgamation of concerns and observations?The initial genesis for what is now Dead Europe lay in my responses to the civil wars that erupted in Yugoslavia at the beginning of the 1990s. As my ancestry is in the Balkans, I wanted to understand conflicts that too easily were interpreted by the Western media as arising from the savagery andirreconcilable differences of the Balkan people.
I knew in my gut that this was not the truth as I have grown up with and continue to live alongside Slavs, Greeks and Turks here in Melbourne. The proclaiming of Macedonian independence was the pivotal political event that led to the book, if you like. I wanted to question the nationalist positions of both the Greeks and Macedonians.
I began researching the history of the Balkans and discovered that the Greek Macedonian city of Thessaloniki (Salonika) was for centuries one of the key cities for Oriental Jews (the Sephardum). Once I began to explore this history, I became more and more convinced that I wanted to write a book about a particular aspect of racism anti-Semitism.
Interrogating and trying to understand racism is a key element in all my writing and initially I approached the writing of Dead Europe as non-fiction. But the more I read and thought about anti-Semitism, racism and history the more I realised the book was also becoming an engagement with religion. I had grown up listening to vampire and ghost stories from my father.
His family comes from a mountain region in Greece and originally descended into Greece from Albania and Romania. The folklore is both extensive and savage. I became fascinated by exploring these stories and, returning to Greece twice in the late nineties, I interviewed old people from my fathers region about folklore, religion, World War II and the Greek Civil War.
As the toxic charge of blood libelagainst the Jews had been a key factor in their persecution, once I began to rethink Dead Europe as a ghost story, as fiction, it freed me to explore the various themes of racism, religion, home and exile which form such a large part of the book. 2. The title Dead Europe is particularly arresting and provocative and can be interpreted in different ways. Your main character Isaac encounters a Europe that has been cursed and blighted by its history that can never recover from it. What was it ab out Europe that you found shocking and irredeemable, that led to this portrayal?
For me there were three key deaths in Europe which gave purpose to the title. The first, as I have said above, comes from the death of Yugoslavia. How did this nation, that was founded on notions of trans-Slavic solidarity as an attempt to overcome the legacy of horrific nationalist wars in the early part of the 19th century, that was created in commitment to a statehood that would never again allow the genocidal slaughters of WWII, fall apart in the way it did?
I dont think that any novel can answer such questions ; that is the task of historians. But I wanted to give voice to some of the effects of the breaking up of Yugoslavia to people who lived within that state. Im not making a point about the legitimacy of Yugoslavia. What I am arguing is that in celebrating its passing, Western Europe and Western democracies paid too little attention to the grief and confusion caused to people within Yugoslavia who did believe in this state.
The other death in the book is connected. It is the death of communism. Again, as someone who grew up in a world where communism was experienced as a real alternative, and almost a faith, I wanted to acknowledge the deep pessimism and grief the passing of communism caused to many many people.
The book is dedicated to one of these men, my mothers brother, a peasant who was taught to write and read by the communists. Again, the book is not a legitimising of European communism; if anything, it probably acknowledges the failure. But, again, I wanted characters to give voice to the devastation wreaked by the collapse of communism, that though we in the democratic West celebrate its end, the collapse of such a huge system and such a key ideology of the Enlightenment brings with it a certain misery and moral collapse.
The third death is closer to home for me. I am the son of peasants. The death of the peasant and agrarian class in Europe has been happening for centuries. Its collapse occurred within only a couple of generations in the Balkans and southern Europe.
As I researched, I came to realise that this peasantry was Jewish and Muslim as well as Christian. The Jewish peasantry was almost completely annihilated in the death camps of the Nazis. Muslim peasants form the bulk of the supposedly illegitimate migration attempting to storm fortress Europe (and fortress Australia).
The sons and daughters of Eastern European peasants now work as prostitutes in the West. This is harsh, this is extreme, but I do not think it is untrue. This is the death at the centre of Dead Europe.
3. And what is it about Europe that Isaacs parents and most Australians and European expats find so sophisticated and desirable? If Europe is the cultural centre of the world, what does that say about the world? And what does it say about Australia?
Europe is the origin of so many Australians. English and Greek, Italian and German. Europe is literally in our blood. Australia is part of the New World (itself a Eurocentric definition) but for a long time its history has been dictated to by its connection to the Old World.
The founding nationalist myth, Gallipoli, arises from our involvement in a world war that was about the collapse of Europes empires. Our relationship to our geographic region and our relationship to our own indigenous and colonial history remains unresolved.
I think when an Australian turns towards Europe, whether they are turning to London or Athens or Rome, the impulse is nostalgic and, for me (because it's part of myself as well), it comes from a sense of still being unsure what being an Australian means.
4. Europe is littered with monuments and relics, but has it remembered its history? It is condemned to repeat it, as Santaya famously asserted? Is that what Dead Europe suggests?
Dead Europe certainly suggests that this is a possibility. Crucially I think Europe has to remember its history as being Christian, Jewish AND Muslim. It has to remember the Byzantine Empire as much as it remembers the Holy Roman Empire.
The Europe that is being unified now within the EU is a Western Europe. To enter all people and all nations have to remodel themselves in the image of the West. I have no answer to whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. I only have questions. But from my questions I cant help but believe that there are many histories in Europe that are being forgotten. I think this is dangerous. 5. The unified and globalised contemporary Europe that Isaac encounters in Dead Europe is revealed in the novel as a faceade. It is a place still ruled by ancient terrors and tribalism. What led you to that realisation? Simple, being confronted by the displacement of people in Europe (and, of course, by the treatment of asylum seekers in Australia).
As a man of Greek origin I see it clearly in Greece. As the nation becomes more westernised there are more and more people finding themselves alienated from the new Europe. Greece’s migrant population is now close to 9 per cent, I believe.
This is in a country that was largely homogenously Greek only fifteen years ago. Travel anywhere in the EU and you are confronted by the mass of refugees and migrants. So at the same time we are supposedly global and connected through the Net and through commerce we are also building detention centres and creating laws that are about sealing ourselves off from those in exile.
It is this tension and this contradiction that the book explores. A friend recently wrote back to me from Germany. She and her boyfriend drove from the German border near Dresden to Prague, following the truck route. All along the 35km journey she saw brothels in every village, there were women and men and youth soliciting all along the way into Prague. What does this mean? What effect does it have on peoples understanding of what it is to be European and democratic, and what violence and hatreds is it possibly fermenting?
I think these are crucial questions to ask. What does it mean that the Sunday papers can have travel lift-outs extolling the virtues of cosmopolitan Prague when a few miles down the road you can buy a young girl for sex for a few American dollars? 6. Can history be separated from religion? What does Dead Europe have to say about the three monotheistic religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam - and how they have shaped the world? How do you imagine they will influence its future?When I was younger I wanted to believe that history did not have to depend on religion anymore. That is the promise of Enlightenment, paradoxically of both democracy and communism.
I no longer believe this. I think religion answers to needs that politics cannot fulfill, precisely because faith and prayer offer hope when the corruption and betrayal of politics and ideology happens. As I worked on the book I realised more and more that I was entering a debate with the monotheistic God.
The reality is that my sexuality and my refusal to be guilty about it anymore makes me exiled from the spirituality promised in the Torah, the Bible and the Quran. But as a man born into the Orthodox Christian religion I have to carry this exile with me all my life.
Dead Europe, in part, is written out of rage and through a sense of spiritual destitution arising from the demands of such a righteous and unforgiving God. In terms of the broad question of religion's role in politics now, we all know that since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in NYC on the 11/9/2001, and since the invasion and occupation of Iraq, there can no longer be a pretence that religion no longer plays a role in politics.Not only in the Islamic world but in Europe and the West itself.
I think progressive people have to begin to address religion seriously, we need to educate ourselves. Especially - and here I am pessimistic - as I believe that all three of those religions ultimately want our destruction. 7.
On the 60th anniversary of the liberation of thousands of Jews from the Nazi death camps, what does DEAD EUROPE say about modern Europes attitude to the Holocaust? How is it possible that anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism can find a voice there today after what happened?
The Holocaust is the defining historical event of the twentieth century. The book is not, and cannot be, a Holocaust novel, but the truth of it permeates the whole book. What disturbed me most about travelling in Europe over the 1990s was the extent of anti-Semitism I encountered. It did not come through any of the mainstream media.
It came through conversations with taxi drivers, refugees, migrants, relatives, people on trains, dinner conversations. A Jewish friend who travels often to Europe said that he has never encountered as much anti-Semitism as he is finding there now.
I think it is a mistake to see that racism as only evident amongst extremists or thugs. Jews have been persecuted for two millennia in Europe. It is a grave danger to believe that it can be overcome in a century. If the justifications are no longer blood libel and fears of the other, the state of Israel and its alliance with the USA has created a feeding ground for anti-Jewish expression.
I want this book to outrage people because I want people to be outraged by the vehemence and hatred of racism. I also want people to be honest about the racism within themselves. If we keep arguing that racism is only the view of the extremist or the Nazi we are blind to its more subtle and sometimes much more far-reaching manifestations.
Obviously the treatment of asylum seekers in Australia also hangs over the novel though it is barely touched upon. It is as if the anti-Semitism against the Jew is no longer legitimate but the anti-Semitism against the Arab is permitted. I believe this is extremely dangerous and morally repugnant. It means that anti-Semitism is not dead. It now takes different forms.
8. Australian novelists have been accused by critics about not addressing issues important to the real world. Yet Dead Europe takes up that mission with a vengeance. Why did you choose to use fiction to dissect these issues? Does the imaginative freedom of fiction better enable such important topics to be examined? Are they made more immediate for the reader?If Australia is a part of the Coalition of the Willing, it cannot pretend to be outside power. I realise not all writers want to deal with the grand themes of politics, sex and religion. There are times when I dont want to either. But, for me, this is not such a time.
What fiction allowed me to do was offer a portrayal of Europe and the contemporary world that gave a spiritual and existential dimension to the historic moment we are living in. I believe fiction can do this and I think some of the greatest modern fiction has always done this. I want the reader to experience not only the contemporary Europe but the smells and sensuality and horror of the old peasant Europe as well.
This is why Dead Europe became a work of fiction. 10. Isaac says he has an illness of never being satisfied. Is this a modern syndrome? I think it is a symptom of decadence. I think Australians and Europeans and the Americans are now truly decadent cultures.
There is a danger in excess and the danger is a spiritual and moral emptiness. This is pessimistic but I believe it is true. The corruption of Christianity is its most visible sign.
The outpouring of grief over the Pope, the revival of fundamentalism, all of this cannot hide the clear truth that we are unprepared to give ourselves over to the rejection of materialism and ego demanded of us by the Gospels. And not only Christians.
I think long-term Muslims and Jews are also decadent in the West. So we create spiritualities that require no discipline or sacrifice. Call it the New Age, it too stinks of decadence.
This Q&A is courtesy of the publisher, Random House -- 2005.
* For an interesting response to Dead Europe and the interview above, see: World Socialist Web Site.