Learning to swim against the tide

The worldwide success of The Slap gave Christos Tsiolkas the financial security and space to explore the themes of success and failure in his next novel using sport as a metaphor, he tells Sue Leonard.

Barracuda
Christos Tsiolkas
Atlantic Books, €21.50;
Kindle, €6.53.

CHRISTOS TSIOLKAS was happy with his status as a moderately successful writer, but then his fourth novel, The Slap, catapulted him into fame. Longlisted for the Man Booker, The Slap won the Commonwealth Prize in 2009, and was shortlisted for two other awards. Starting with a man hitting someone else’s unruly child, it became a must-read book, beloved by reading groups. But not everyone liked it.

It left the second-generation Australian reflecting on the meaning of success.

“I thought my next book would be partly about success and failure, and I had been thinking of using sport as a metaphor. I had the voice of a 15-year-old boy in my head; and the voice of a man who had seen himself fail, and I thought, what if I brought them both up front? How would I work forwards from that?”

Christos spoke to young athletes, and thought about incidents where these incredibly idolised young men and women had done something wrong. And the public reacted with righteous fury.

“An example is a Champion swimmer called Nick D’Arcy who bashed up a friend, violently, in a pub. I misheard the story on the radio, and thought that the kid was from a disadvantaged home. I thought, how interesting! As soon as I started investigating the case, I realised they were both from privileged backgrounds, but I thought, that doesn’t stop me from writing that story. It was a gift!”

In Barracuda, Danny Kelly is sent to a private school on a swimming scholarship. His dream, to be the best, and get to the Olympics seems to be on track, until he has a meltdown at his first championships. Unable to cope with failure, he feels he no longer exists. Then he does something reprehensible.

Can he ever forgive himself ? Through Danny, Christos explores the complex class system in modern Australia; he looks at the difficulties encountered by immigrant families, and the sense of identity. It’s a beautifully structured novel, as it flits between Danny the boy, and Dan, the man, and is both illuminating, and redemptive. It could well become my book of the year.

Class is a subject that has long interested Christos. With Greek parentage, he considered himself working-class, but since attending university, and becoming a celebrated author he feels his values are now middle-class.

“But my story is not Danny’s story. If there is an element of me in the book, it’s in Danny’s friend Demet, whose family have come from Turkey. But the bit about Danny going into the private school was my experience of going into university. I have never dealt with that directly, and after the success of The Slap gave me financial security, I thought I needed to write that story.”

He’s not entirely flattering in his portrayal of Greek women. Danny’s mother warns him off them.

‘Greek men either have to go completely macho on their wives, or they’re pussy-whipped. Whatever you do, Danny, don’t get involved with a Greek woman. They’re bitches.’ Does he really believe that? “There is an element of truth,” he says. “My early books were rooted in the strength of Greek women. I am constantly astonished by their strength, but their cultural power comes in the domestic sphere, and growing up in that world can be hard. So much self assertion comes through the woman’s relationship with their child, and that can be destructive, and not very healthy.”

Christos is intensely likeable. He laughs often and loudly, and seems really happy being interviewed, responding as if this is the first time he’s been asked such questions. When he leaves, he kisses me as he would a good friend.

He’s openly gay, and though there are a couple of very graphic sex scenes in Barracuda, Danny’s sexuality isn’t a main focus of the book.

“I knew, from the start, that Danny was homosexual, but there were so many elements I wanted to explore in Barracuda, and I didn’t want it to become a coming-of-age story. My approach was to trust the reader. As a swimmer, Danny was almost asexual. It’s more about what the body means to Danny.”

There’s a section in the novel set in Adelaide; Danny and his mum visit his estranged grandmother, who is dying. There are extraordinary tensions, but Danny forms a bond with his cousin, who is disabled following an accident.

“The book is so much about the body and what it does. Dennis was the first person to recognise something beyond the body in Danny, and Dan recognises the beauty in Dennis. I think that’s a very important moment.”

At the start of the novel, Danny is in Glasgow with his partner. It’s a city Christos knows well.

“I was there when I physically started the novel, and I had such a wonderful time. Bill Salton, the father of one of my friends was born in Glasgow in 1919. He was fascinating. He spoke Lithuanian and Russian, because the tenement he lived in was full of Lithuanians and Russians. Glasgow, symbolically, represents the beginning of working class culture. It was where the industrial revolution began.

“Dan likes the city, but feels he can’t stay. It’s just too far from Australia. I feel that too. I think my choice to live in Melbourne, is bound by my relationships to others; to my partner, who I have been with since I was young, and to my family. I don’t see that as a burden. I would feel at home in Greece, and in London, but Australia is home. Living anywhere else, I would miss the ocean.

“There is, though, something immature in Australia’s culture. There’s defensiveness in their reactions to criticism. It’s ‘This is God’s earth. If you don’t like it, fuck off !’ That is neither a mature nor a helpful position. But Australia is still a work in progress. I think class is different there because it’s a new world nation. My parents, their peers and people from all across the globe would say, ‘I had opportunities here that I could never have had in Greece, Vietnam, or wherever their origins were.’ “I began the novel from the position of envy for sports people. They are idolised by the public, and it seemed to me their success was pure. They knew they were the best; it’s clear-cut, whereas a writer has to deal with reviews. And if you believe the best ones, you have to also believe the worst.

“But it became very clear to me that athletes only have a small window of opportunity. They do what they do, but at some point, maybe 21, maybe 24, they can’t continue, and life post-competition is incredibly difficult for them. I realised, in the end, that whatever my reviews, nothing is going to stop me writing. I will hope to do this all my life.”

Before the success of The Slap, Christos worked in other jobs, including, at one time, a film archivist and a vet nurse. Does he enjoy the freedom of writing full-time? “At this moment writing gives me incredible joy. It is amazing good fortune that I can do this; that this is my vocation. I made the decision, 20 years ago, that whatever job I was doing, my first priority was writing, and that’s been a constant source of happiness. But writing is not the most important thing in my world. Relationships and family come first.”

But does he still worry about failure? “It still hovers. There was a moment, a week and a half before Barracuda was published in Australia, where I had a cold sweat of thinking, what if I fail? But I realise, however much that would hurt, I will write again.”


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