Dawn Cohen is a journalist and psychologist living in Australia. She has written about left wing antisemitism for the Australian Jewish News and numerous journals and newspapers. She addressed Australia’s National Human Rights Confererence in 2003 on left-wing antisemism, and in February 2005 gave a talk on left-wing antisemism at Monash University’s Antisemitism Conference.
Sydney: Random House, 2005, 411 pp.
Australia’s first novel confronting left-wing antisemitism has been written by a Greek gentile. Christos Tsiolkas’s Dead Europe embeds an exploration of 21st century antisemitism and its ancestral roots in a yarn about a gay Greek photographer from Melbourne called Isaac, tracking his family’s history in a trip to post communist Europe.
Fortunately for the Jewish community, the work is not only a political masterpiece; it is a gripping read on the cutting edge of contemporary literature.
Consequently it will win national awards, and therefore grace the dinner party chat and university curricula of Australian intelligencia, carving a place for antisemitism on left-wing agendas.
Before you rush out to buy it expecting a gleeful read, be warned. Dead Europe is not for the faint hearted. The book is saturated with sex and abusive language.
It departs from conventional techniques of depicting antisemitism that contrast the cruelty and illogicality of antisemitism with idealised Jewish characters.
The conventional literary techniques create Jewish characters who are clearly morally superior and more likeable than those with antisemitic views, giving readers an easily digestable identification with Jews as long as Jews are perceived as better than everyone else.
But Dead Europe demands more of the reader. It communicates that Jews are no worse or better than other characters in the book, all of who have few redeeming features. It demands the reader oppose antisemitism purely because it is wrong.
In so doing, it protests the vigorous resurgence of antisemitism in the left that flourishes the moment Jews are perceived as imperfect. Dead Europe’s world is not divided into evil antisemites, innocent Jews and their heroic saviours. Rather, good and evil are a double helix embedded into the deepest essence of all.
The past, present and future are also more bound to each other than modern society likes to admit. Tsiolkas alternates chapters about Isaac’s present with a fable-like tale of his ancestors living in a Greek village during the war.
To write with such authenticity about his subject, Tsiolkas faced up to his own capacity for prejudice, rooted in the anti-Jewish myths he absorbed from his community while growing up in Melbourne.
Long before he met a Jew he was told the story of the blood libel as if it were fact. Isaac begins the book with this experience. By the end, Dead Europe explains the ‘heinous lie’ as a projected non-Jewish desire to suck the life-blood from the “other”.
Tsiolkas looks evil long enough in the eye to extract an understanding of its causes, but he extracts a price for his own courage. He expects you to do the same.
Like a ruthless psychoanalyst, he will expose you to your own dark side. When you run for the cover of moralistic dissociation from the characters, he will cut you off at the pass.
When the horror gets too much you will want to stop reading, but the strength of his lean, muscled sentences will hold you firmly in their grip.
In the end, Tsiolkas can be trusted. He is wrestling with evil, not offering you up to it. When it is hard to tell the difference, his insight and compassion are like the edges of light illuminating a Rembrandt –darkness.
But many Australian Jews don’t experience it that way. They are incensed by the book that they see as reinforcing antisemitism through his depiction of it.
Tsiolkas’s occasional slip as he walks the fine line between commentary on antisemitism and wallowing in the hatred confirms their concerns.
Nevertheless, this is a great work, to be read by those so interested in engaging with the complexity of truth, they are willing to be disturbed.