Book Review: Christos Tsiolkas’s Dead Europe

Dead EuropeDead Europe by Christos Tsiolkas
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I remember that I could barely read The Jesus Man, finding it pointlessly grungy and shocking. But I loved The Slap: the premise was clever, it was a page-turner, and I was convinced and engaged by the characters. Last Europe does seem like an early work, prone to excess, and too full of what I find to be faults. As a Chinese-Canadian living in Australia, I was very interested in the theme of Dead Europe, of travelling back to a ‘homeland’, of family history, of how members of the diaspora are viewed from home countries.

But that theme was dealt with in a quite superficial way. The main theme of Dead Europe seemed to be exploring anti-Semitism and honestly, I was confused by the treatment of this subject. Pretty every character in the novel comes out with moments or statements of anti-Semitism, some virulent, some more tempered. There is one explanation, a somewhat tortured political dialogue on imperialism, power and displacement, and the other main explanation, as a result of guilt over killing a Jewish boy, that spreads to a whole family, which, when you really think about it, is wrong. Whether it happened or could have happened makes me think about one of the only critiques I read of the popular Netflix series, Squid Game. Sure, it’s engaging to portray violence and inequality. But surely one has to go beyond this, to point out either explanation or possible solutions. Portraying a killing of a Jew that results in a family that is anti-Semitic? Where do we go from there?

This would also be part of my larger critique of the book. The narrator and some of the people he surrounds himself with are excessive in their behaviour, but it is so relentless that I was actually bored. Everything smells of vomit, urine, blood and shit. The narrator wants to do violence to others, real, bloody violence. He wants to have sex with everyone else. Or the same ones he wants to commit violence upon. At least three relationships are mentioned between people of very different ages, but it doesn’t seem like there’s any commentary on it. That Isaac, the protagonist, had his first gay relationships with men decades older than him, while a young teenager (I think), would be shocking to many; I’m not sure if it’s meant to be shocking here or desensitize readers. It just is. At one point, Isaac drinks so much he vomits on himself and heads off in search of sex with rent boys. And then things got really weird in the last part of the book when Isaac becomes a vampire. What DID the author want to say here?

I’m not against reading about sex, drugs and violence, but the portrayal here seems nihilistic, which, rather than depressing or shocking, I just find boring and unengaging. Still, I found some of the writing lovely, particularly the retelling of myths in the family village, and even at the end, as I was rushing through, just trying to finish the book, the writing became more direct and straightforward, and I found myself becoming interested in some of the characters again. The book certainly made me think … about literature and writing and how we tell stories, but I wasn’t a fan of this book.

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