Christos Tsiolkas is, in both a popular and a critical sense, one of the most prominent literary figures in Australia today. He has published five novels, numerous short stories (including a recent collection), as well as critical essays, plays and screenplays, and an experimental philosophical-autobiographical dialogue with Sasha Soldatow.
Barracuda, Tsiolkas’ latest novel to be adapted for television, will reach our screens on Sunday. As such, it’s timely to reflect on his place in Australia’s intellectual landscape and on what the Barracuda series should try to capture from his novel.
Tsiolkas is unashamedly vocal in his politics and – in addition to his novels – often comments in public forums on some of the issues most critical and most controversial in contemporary Australian culture: asylum seekers, sexuality, religion, the economy. It’s precisely this raw and outspoken political and social consciousness that gives power to Tsiolkas’ writing.
Indeed, this has become an explicit project. Tsiolkas has described his two most recent novels in particular – The Slap (2008) and Barracuda (2013) – as “social problem” or “condition of Australia” novels. Hearkening back to Victorian-era social realism, they explore systemic social flaws through their characters.
But Tsiolkas isn’t just concerned with speaking out. His socially engaged writing is always and everywhere about the importance of reading and listening. This “return”, as he puts it, “to a more classical novel”, suggests an explicit desire to engage with an intellectually starved public.
Literature against injustice
His fiction and non-fiction writing systematically returns to the power of literature to make us reflect and act. In his essay On the Concept of Tolerance, for example, Tsiolkas recalls a short story by North American author Ursula K. Le Guin, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas (1973), in which the citizens of the city Omelas are perfectly happy. Everyone has just enough to meet his or her needs. Yet the foundation of this utopia is a child, crouched in the cramped corner of a dark, dank cellar.
Malnourished, feeble, frightened, this child has been confined for years. Sometimes citizens of the city travel to the cellar to witness the suffering child. They know that their happiness depends on its continued agony and abandonment, and this both overrides and justifies their horrified reaction to the child’s predicament.
For some, it’s in their “compassion” for the child that they appreciate the perfection of Omelas: “Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness,” writes Le Guin. “They know that they, like the child, are not free.”
But some citizens who visit the child walk away from Omelas forever, seeking a true utopia.
As such, Tsiolkas notes, at the core of Le Guin’s story is “not the question of what the utopia could look like or be like”, but rather lies “in the meaning of the one moment of civil responsibility”.
“The ones who walk away from Omelas,” he says, “cannot accept the injustice done to even one individual … In refusing to tolerate this one instance of injustice they demand that we repudiate any instance of injustice.”
Reaching his audience
In this way, Tsiolkas’ work is intimately bound up with the question of Australia’s future, and the role literature, writers and readers can play in refusing injustice. Art and politics, Tsiolkas argues in that essay and in his fiction, are inseparable. His writing demonstrates the way, as he puts it,
The extreme blasphemous position of the outsider [is] embodied in the always dissenting, always tolerant role of the artist.
This mission of broader social engagement requires transitioning between narrative modes, and Barracuda is the most recent of Tsiolkas’ works to be adapted for the screen. (All of his novels but for The Jesus Man (1999) have been adapted for film or television.)
Tsiolkas himself is associate producer of the four-part series, which has been developed by Matchbox Pictures, by many of the same team which adapted The Slap. His first novel, Loaded (1995), was adapted as the film Head On (1998), Dead Europe (2005) was adapted to film in 2012, and The Slap was adapted for television in Australia in 2011, and in the United States in 2015.
Although Head On and Dead Europe found a warm reception in their critical audiences, both adaptations of The Slap – although extraordinarily different – have been widely well-received for their raw interrogation of middle-class suburbia. Barracuda, with its focus on the Olympic dreams and terrible downfall of young swimmer Danny Kelly, promises to get a similar reception.
Barracuda: rage and redemption
In Barracuda, Tsiolkas’ central concern is with what it means to be good. Danny Kelly’s violence and anger – he is “the barracuda” – is a continuation of the marginalised character of Gary in The Slap, the careless violence of Ari in Loaded, the self-torture of Tommy in The Jesus Man, and the savage, bloodthirsty aggression of Isaac in Dead Europe. Where Danny differs from his literary precursors, however, is in his willingness to atone.
Reading is an integral part of Danny’s moral evolution. Yet, despite Tsiolkas’ obvious belief in the power of words, literature isn’t inherently redemptive: stories are important because they provide Danny with a model of community.
For example, while at school he revels in the “fantasy” of the ways “words worked” in a play as opposed to “in the real world”. In prison he discovers that books, in fact, “were the world”.
In Anton Chekhov’s short story, A Day in the Country (1886), Danny finds both “the brutality [and] the tenderness of the world”. He tears the pages from the book and hides them in his mattress, relying on the words as nourishment for his final months in prison. The story doesn’t provide an escape so much as a reassurance that he is not alone.
What the children of the story and Danny all discover is the interdependency of plants, insects and animals in the world around them. No one, the story shows, is alone. In Chekhov’s story the old man leaves bread under the heads of the sleeping children who look to him for education and guidance, but for Danny the story itself is a gift.
The story doesn’t make up for the world, but it gives Danny the critical tools to understand it, and his place in it. As in so many of Tsiolkas’ works, community is the salve for the problems of the individual.
When Tsiolkas was a panellist on the ABC’s Book Club, he selected for the group’s discussion Michel Houellebecq’s Submission (2015): a dystopian novel about the uprising of the French far-right. His selection is a telling one, testifying not only to Tsiolkas’ interests in politics and religion, but to the importance of independent thought.
Tsiolkas seems to argue that it’s not so much writing, but the engagement of readers and our own development as thinkers that is critical for our national and global future.
It’s in this context that Tsiolkas has become that most necessary figure in contemporary Australia, what University of Sydney academic Brigid Rooney calls a “writer-intellectual”, one who “frequently articulate[s] their sense of civic, national and … international responsibilities”.
And for all that Barracuda (and, indeed, The Slap) is a novel about the mistakes and redemption of an individual, it’s also a narrative that emphasises the responsibilities we have as a community in both producing and punishing Danny, a boy isolated, competitive, predatory: a barracuda. Just like in Le Guin’s story, for Tsiolkas we’re all complicit, and we’re all responsible.
Barracuda will air on Sundays at 8.40pm on ABC TV from 10 July.