Jean-Paul Sartre once said that the difference between human beings and other animals is that we know we are fastened to dying animals. The 15 stories comprising Christos Tsiolkas' collection, Merciless Gods, have that knowledge front and fore. They're bleak, unsettling portraits of human relationships, particularly adult human relationships, confounded as they so often are by sexuality.
Although he has enjoyed plenty of critical success, Aussie Tsiolkas is likely best known to New Zealanders (if not Australians) for his fourth novel, The Slap, which was made into a television series. The strength of that book was considered to have been its gimlet-eyed portrayal of contemporary Australia. Merciless Gods is just as sharply observed, although the Australia depicted (most of the stories are set in Australia and feature Australians) won't be in the least familiar to many of the author's countrymen. With a few exceptions, the protagonists are from immigrant communities and, in many cases, they are gay. It's a world that Joh Bjelke-Petersen, for example, would never have brought himself to believe in.
The opening (and title) story is a cracker. It is a reminiscence of the night that a group of friends the narrator once had began to disintegrate, largely because a parlour game they played - drawing a word from a bowl full of words and each person telling a story based on it - unleashes the interpersonal politics in the room. The beautiful, cruel and merciless Vince describes how he once cut off a boy's hand in eastern Turkey in retribution for the boy having tried to pick his pocket. None of his listeners know whether the story is true: they all sense that the real and present brutality is in the telling.
Some of the stories have to do with relationships with parents. The beautiful, sad Saturn Return sees the narrator accompanying his lover to be at the bedside of his father, who has HIV and who has an exit strategy. In The Hair Of The Dog, the narrator thinks back on the life of his alcoholic mother, whom he thought he had escaped. Genetic Material sees a son performing a surprising act of kindness for his father, who has so far succumbed to Alzheimer's as to be confused about who and where he is.
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In fact, so intensely focused on the politics of the personal are most of the stories that it is a relief when the camera pans away. In Civil War, a young man hitch-hiking from Perth back east across the Nullabor is appalled by the racism of the truckie who gives him a lift, and alarmed by the possibility that the driver is but one of many who believe that the threat to the interests of White Australia requires an armed response.
The T Shirt With The Fist On It features a middle-aged lesbian travelling with her partner through Jordan, and gently mocks her oddly conservative assumptions about their driver and guide, Hassan.
Tsiolkas is a clever writer. His prose is economical, serving the purpose of the stories rather than drawing attention to itself. He sets out to confront, and the language and graphic content - sex, violence and cruelty and every combination thereof - is confronting. And that is one of this collection's great achievements. As unfamiliar as the milieu and values of the protagonists in these stories will be to many - if not most - readers, in the end, it is the human condition that transcends it all.
We are dying animals, and more: we are playthings in the hands of merciless gods.
Merciless Gods by Christos Tsiolkas (Allen and Unwin $39.99)