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Christos Tsiolkas: Dead Europe

Tsiolkas has made no secret of his contempt for Europe, despite the fact that he is the son of Europeans. While this novel is not a straightforward condemnation of Old Europe à la Donald Rumsfeld, he certainly is very inclined to show up what he considers as the faults of old Europe. There are two stories, alternating, in this book. The first is the story of Isaac Raftis, an Australian, thirty-six year old gay man of Greek parents. He is a professional photographer but makes very little money out of it and survives from a part-time job in a video store and from his lover, Colin. His parents have both been junkies and his father died of a heroin overdose. His mother is now clean. One day he receives an email out of the blue from Greece. They are holding a festival to celebrate the Greek Diaspora and they have invited him to exhibit some of his photos in Athens, with flights and hotels paid. He is reluctant at first, not wanting to leave Colin, but then accepts and decides to do a European tour.

After Athens, which was not wildly successful and which he really did not like, he tries to find the village his mother came from. This proves somewhat difficult but it does take him to the non-tourist Greece, where there are no ancient ruins nor pretty houses. Only when he manages to make contact with his cousin Giulia is he able to get a ride to the village. He continues on to various European cities – Thessaloniki, Venice, Prague, Paris, Berlin, London and Cambridge. However, his visits to these cities are not the conventional visits. He seems to do three things in these cities – find the seedy areas (what he would called the ‘real’ city), find the gay scene and, in some of them, find the Jewish area. He sometimes makes a specific point that he has not seen the standard tourist attractions. He manages to find other gays without difficulty. Indeed, virtually everyone man he meets is either gay or bisexual. Clearly one aspect of dead Europe is the lack of heterosexual men. Despite his undying love for Colin – he phones him regularly and says how much he misses him – he is not averse to sleeping with not only various men he meets but the occasional woman, particularly if she is menstruating, which he can smell and which turns him on. It is not entirely clear why these adventures show that Europe is dead, though he does have arguments with various people about the nature of Europe.

There is one issue which he does strongly criticise not only Europe for but also Australia and that is anti-Semitism. Despite his name, he is not Jewish, as he tells many people. However, he comes across many instances of anti-Semitism, which horrifies him. He nearly leaves Colin when he learns that many years previously, Colin, as an unruly young lad, had desecrated a Jewish grave, when drunk and still has a Nazi tattoo on his arm. The book actually starts off with his mother telling him that the Jews always sacrificed a Christian child on Christmas Day. However, he finds far more instances of it in Europe. He also has a couple of difficulties with Jews himself. In Thessaloniki, he visits the Jewish Museum, where the guardian adamantly refuse to let him take pictures and he is very upset about that. In Venice, while taking pictures in the Jewish Quarter an old man points to graffiti – usually swastikas – and encourages him to take photos of them, before taking him back to his house, where Isaac finds a large number of books on Judaism and anti-Semitism in various languages. Suddenly the man seizes his camera, removes the film and exposes it. Only the arrival of the man’s wife enables him to get his camera back.

The other story thread concerns a Greek family. It soon becomes apparent that the family is the family of Isaac’s mother, before she emigrated to Australia. Her father, Michaelis, had been the son of the village idiot and an Albanian woman who, though she had lived in the village many years, was still considered a stranger. Michaelis, to everyone’s surprise, turned out to be intelligent but, when he went to school, he was bullied and eventually ran away. He made his way to the United States, where he worked hard and made some money, before returning, where he was feted. He married the prettiest girl in the village but she seems to be barren. He has foolishly returned just before the German invasion. One day, a Jew he knows brings his son and asks him to look after him, while the Jew flees Greece. Lucia, Michaelis’ wife, only agrees when the Jew agrees to pay a lot of money. The boy is hidden in a cave in the mountains. When Lucia becomes pregnant, she does not want the boy around, as there is a risk from the Germans. The child Lucia has – Reveka (i.e. Rebecca) – is, of course, Isaac’s mother. The story is quite complicated but aims to show the superstitions and anti-Semitism of the Greeks, which Reveka still has.

That Europe is old-fashioned and out of touch, compared to Australia (and the United States) is a valid point, though one that obviously would be disputed by many Europeans. Tsiolkas does not, it seems to me, make his point very well. Homosexuality, something he clearly cherishes, flourishes in both continents in this book. The fact Europe has old museums and old monuments, which Isaac avoids, seems to be irrelevant. Are the values different? He criticises the European values in many cases but, as even he points out, anti-Semitism is not unique to Europe and it is not clear what Australian values he is upholding as a shining example to Europe. Apart from literature – he wants stories about men with broad shoulders, men who worked and smoked and fucked and knew nothing of the salons and ballrooms of an ancient Europe, though that is not all European literature is about – and a comment from Giulia – Greece is dying – he does not really make his case. It is certainly an interesting book to read but not, I think, a great work.

Publishing history

First published 2005 by Vintage