The two novels, Dead Europe and The Slap, are filled with the ‘smells and expressions of the male body (Tsiolkas 2008:1). Christos Tsiolkas bombards readers with representations of the male and, in Dead Europe particularly, with the figure of the young boy. Nine pages of the novel are devoted to a depiction of the young Isaac who, from the ages of 13 to 16 has two ‘affairs’ with much older men. This paper analyses this brief section critically in the light of the older Isaac’s continued fascination with young boys. In The Slap the awkward 18-year-old Richie is linked with both the four-year-old Hugo and the 43-year-old Hector. Through a consideration of Germaine Greer’s The Boy, Emmanuel Lévinas’ notions of infinity and the Face of the Other and Christos Tsiolkas’ essay on tolerance in Tsiolkas, Haigh and Wright’s Tolerance, Prejudice and Fear, this exploratory essay will question the representation of the boy in Tsiolkas’ two novels. It will argue that Tsiolkas, by his own definition a “radical artist”, is fascinated by the ethical and that both novels are examinations of the ethical in the abject. What is the radical ethics implicit in these two novels?
Both Dead Europe and The Slap are overt, in subject matter, if less so in execution. Around the representations of the boy and his movement into manhood, nothing seems unspeakable in either novel, no matter how generally taboo. Sex, drugs, paedophilia, bestiality, breastfeeding, ejaculation, masturbation, not to mention farting – all are touched upon, uncovered, thrust upon the reader. Dead Europe is primarily centred on Isaac Raftis and his journey and encounters in Europe. In contrast, The Slap focuses on eight main characters, each of whom get their own chapter. In both novels, confrontation through narrative and imagery seems intended to provoke discussion, whether by the characters in each novel, or readers; there is no room to hide. Yet, Tsiolkas himself has commented that Dead Europe is about “what it means to be an artist, a man in love, to be an ethical human in a supposedly post-ideological age…” (Tsiolkas, online). This statement, particularly the phrase “ethical human”, is intriguing especially in relation to the many sexual allusions and depictions of liaisons between man and boy. This paper argues, with reference to Germaine Greer’s The Boy, that the figure and the body of the boy resonate in these novels, novels that ultimately break down barriers, bodies, genders, classes, social constructs.
At the end of both novels hope that lies in the potential for refiguring or reimagining these constructs is implied but, in Dead Europe at least, bleakly. In The Slap hope is stronger and located in the boy, 18-year old Richie, in his pleasurably drugged body and the sleep that overcomes him (Tsiolkas 2005:483). The paper argues further, that, while potentially confronting in its eroticism, the physicality of the descriptions does not exclude either book from being ethical explorations. Indeed, Noel Rowe, in his essay, Sacrificing Grace, states, “Dead Europechallenges moral conventions, and quite radically, yet is preoccupied with what might almost be called the instinct for ethics, the unformalised desire for a better world” (Rowe 2008:231). More precisely, Emmanuel Lévinas defines ethics:
We name this calling into question of my spontaneity by the presence of the Other ethics. The strangeness of the Other, his irreducibility to the I, to my thoughts and my possessions, is precisely accomplished as a calling into question of my spontaneity, as ethics. (Lévinas 1979: 43)
This paper builds on both statements. It will examine ethics in Tsiolkas through the Lévinasian concepts of Infinity and the Face of the Other, and Tsiolkas’ ideal of a “radical artist” (Tsiolkas, Haigh and Wright 2008: 48 – 49). Following on from the latter notion, the paper further argues that the ethics in his novels too is radical.
If in Dead Europe the protagonist Isaac is the “ethical human” referred to, then Tsiolkas is examining the ethical in the abject, with Isaac’s journey into vampirism a metaphorical one into darkness. This journey culminates in the “What do you believe?” epiphany for vampire Isaac that outlines the atrocities that humans are capable of if not checked – by ourselves, by the societies that we construct (Tsiolkas 2005 378 – 379). Before Isaac reaches this point, however, is a depiction of two ‘affairs’ that he has, between the ages of 13 and 16, with much older men. These formative experiences are not overtly depicted as damaging, but they do impact on Isaac, and are replicated in his thirst for young boys while in Europe to unearth his family history. His early relationships are all the more intriguing in the screens that he later puts up between himself and the subjects of his attentions. One of his early relationships, with Signor Bruno Parloveccio, 60, is affectionate and instructive, while the other, with Paul Ricco, 41, describes first love and loss. Both are sexual and, through the corporeal description provided, sexualising of the boy. Analysis of young Isaac’s needs and reactions as depicted casts some light on the older Isaac’s voyeuristic and paedophilic tendencies.
In The Slap (2008), there are two boys of particular interest to this paper. In the final chapter of the novel that is named after Richie, various links are consolidated between Richie, the four-year-old Hugo who he babysits and the 43-year-old Hector who he has a crush on. It is Hector’s viewpoint that begins the novel and it is fitting that Richie’s ends it. With these links, Richie’s position as a centre of transition between child and adult is established. Unlike Dead Europe(2005), where readers are able to scrutinise the teenage Isaac for hints of the adult if they so wish, in The Slap (2008) Richie remains 18 just as Hugo remains four. But as in Dead Europe, the male figure and his relation with the body, from boyhood to manhood, is essential.
The Boy – Body and Sexuality
Germaine Greer, in The Boy, her study of the figure of the boy in Western art, writes:
As a junior the boy must defer to his male elders and superiors and may not legitimately assert mastery over anyone. As a subordinate, he might be feminized, if we continue to insist on passivity as a feminine characteristic. To put it another way, biological maleness only takes to itself phallic activity and mastery when it assumes patriarchal power. The boy, being debarred from phallic power, is endowed simply with a responsive penis rather than a dominating phallus and can be sexualized with impunity. (Greer 2003: 228)
This comment provides some insight into the boy Isaac’s experiences and characterisation. He is feminised and passive and his “responsive penis” is eroticised. But he chooses both relationships. Reflecting on his needs during the summer of his first ‘affair’, Isaac realises, “In truth I would have hooked up with any man who would have taught me truths about my body” (Tsiolkas, 2008: 140). In Paul’s case, Isaac falls in love. He recalls, as an adult, his first sight of his love: “Paul had turned. He was smiling. I still dream that smile” (Tsiolkas 142).
Isaac does learn from both Signor Bruno and Paul in relationships that move from Signor Bruno (one summer) to Paul (three years) and back again to Signor Bruno (possibly one spring). Signor Bruno, who seems to represent a classic romantic European sensibility, transforms Isaac into a “coquettish snob” with a knowledge of his body, sex and, beyond that, “music and etiquette…[and] what he called fine literature – which, for him, meant British and French literature, never anything American” (Tsiolkas 140). Paul, who seems representative of the tough, callous Australian of Italian heritage, is keen to rid Isaac of his learned effeminacy and his “English inflections” – “Be a man, he warned me” (Tsiolkas 144). But, Isaac remembers, when they are making love in his vegetable van, Paul calls him in Italian, his ‘bella ragazza’, his pretty girl (Tsiolkas 144 and 146). Isaac also remembers, “And at one point I would have done anything for Paul Ricco. I would have cut off my sex and become a girl if he had asked me to” (Tsiolkas 142). The tough Australian, who wears tight Bonds singlets (Tsiolkas 143), the emblem of Australian masculinity, appreciates boys when they are feminine or at least androgynous dumps Isaac ‘when hair began to sprout from [his] chest, when [he] started to regularly shave’ (Tsiolkas 144). And the impressionable youth responds to the tenderness of the endearment and his love by accepting the possibility of a drastic change in identity/gender if needed. Here then is a radical ethics pertaining to the boy. He is not coerced into either relationship; neither is he judged or condemned – standard moral conventions are challenged, as Noel Rowe maintains (Rowe 2008: 231). Instead a moment of transformation is indicated, a moment when the hunger, capacity and openness of the boy is shown, an openness to bodily and sexual possibility and to love.
In both relationships Isaac is the Other who is ‘junior’ and ‘subordinate’, as in Greer’s categories (Greer 2003: 228), and feminised, not just in the sense of being passive. But he is also an agent in defining his own gender ambiguity and is himself prepared to be completely feminised. He defers to his male elders, up to a point; passivity is expected of him and he complies, but it is a fine line between passivity and his radical openness to the Other, even the other of the self. Possibly, for him passivity is part of his burgeoning eroticism which helps him accept being ‘debarred from phallic power (Greer 2003: 228). When he is told by one of Paul’s cohorts to leave and not to return he does so ‘silently’ though he can see Paul gambling with the men. That is the end of his great love (Tsiolkas 145). Whether this passivity is feminine is arguable, as Greer realises. But it is powerless, an indicator of his standing, particularly within the conventions of (romantic) eroticism. Through this incident, too, a question is raised: Isaac walks a thin line between passivity and acceptance and a sexual, bodily, loving openness. Tsiolkas questions whether this openness equates with powerlessness, and how such openness relates to ethical openness.
The boy Isaac does move out of this phase. He does develop a “dominating phallus”, a hint of phallic or patriarchal power. It is Signor Bruno who educates the boy and attempts to help him move beyond just the ‘responsive penis’ (Greer 228). The adult Isaac, looking back, feels that any damage done to him lay only in his transformation into a ‘coquettish snob’, not what was done to him sexually. He points out:
So the damage done was in no way sexual. The little tricks he taught me, his determination to get my adolescent hands off my prick and show me that the arse, the neck, the stomach, the thighs, could also generate pleasure, were lessons that made me confident as a lover. That I was not attracted to him was something we did not talk about. (Tsiolkas 140)
What the ‘damage’ is, however, is not articulated. Signor Bruno, the adult, the teacher, does not deal with the psychological or emotional nuances of their liaison, and neither does Isaac express them. It may be that in this silence the damage can fester but Tsiolkas leaves it for the reader to decipher, to pick up the traces of Signor Bruno’s teaching in the man who journeys across Europe.
Readers also get another of Isaac’s insights into this erotically nurturing relationship:
I was thirteen and [Signor Bruno] had just turned sixty. If that difference in age now seems fantastic, at the time it was of little consequence to me. At thirteen, with thin, sparse hairs I detested curling on my top lip, with my voice breaking and my balls beginning to drop, anyone over eighteen was an adult, and that promise of maturity was what was desirable. (Tsiolkas 139)
Isaac is keen to hasten his growth towards phallic maturity, if not a dominating one. This physical picture of a boy reinforces differences between adult and child and brings home the fact that, at least according to the law, this relationship between man and boy is a sexually abusive one even if it is not considered so by the victim. Boundaries are not clearly demarcated, though. Isaac desires this relationship for the “promise of maturity” it fulfils; and when he is devastated, at 16, after Paul drops him it is to Signor Bruno that he turns. But this time, he is impetuous, not passive:
I dumped [Signor Bruno] as brutally as Paul had got rid of me. But as soon as I myself was rejected I ran to the old man and he welcomed me back. He poured me a wine, got me drunk, and then, sliding to his knees, he tried to take my flaccid cock into his mouth. I kicked at him. I could not bear sex with the corrupt old faggot after being with Paul. He did not argue with me, did not anger. Instead, holding his silk handkerchief to his split lip, he rose and went to his bedroom. He returned with books.– I was hoping you would come back, he said, his voice shaking. (Tsiolkas 145)
This time there is no “responsive penis”, only a “flaccid cock”. Is this the moment when the boy, on the cusp, transforms? And what does he transform into? A ‘man’, one with Greer’s “phallic power”? Perhaps he does, as he calls his ex-lover a “corrupt old faggot” and kicks him till his lip splits. In not reacting passively, it seems that he is on his way to the “dominating phallus” of “patriarchal power” (Greer 228). And yet, being a man involves more, as the older Isaac seems to realise in the depictions of his own dealings with Bruno, and with the boys he encounters in Europe. The image of Bruno, shaking, accepting of the young Isaac’s temerity and offering him books instead, suggests another phase for the male, another possibility for relating to the Other. With age or life experience, perhaps the “dominating phallus” is not that quick to enforce itself.
The relationship between the young Isaac and the two older men provides readers with insights into Isaac’s sexual beginnings. They do not provide simple answers or equate easily with Isaac as adult or vampire. But his initial sexual relationships do suggest why, where once the boy yearned for maturity, in the rest of the novel, the man yearns for youth, perhaps for his boyhood. However, the adult Isaac is careful, protective, even in his fantasies. He is depicted masturbating or ejaculating through these fantasies. But he resists his desires and feels shame, particularly when ‘dangerously young’ boys are thrust at him for his pleasure (Tsiolkas 228 – 229). Often too there are screens between him and the objects of his attention. The first occasion is a “depraved fantas[y]” (Tsiolkas 52), a description that he, as narrator, applies:
I was in the apartment again… Serge led me into a bedroom where his young brother stripped for me and stood naked for my camera. I took my photographs.I came imagining capturing his pubescent naked image. (Tsiolkas 53)
Serge, the youth Isaac slept with earlier in the narrative, is no longer the object of desire and fantasy. Rather, his role is that of a (moral?) permission giver, the granter of access to his 11- or 12-year-old brother, Yuri, not mentioned by name in Isaac’s reverie. The camera allows Isaac, and is necessary for him, to distance himself from his sexual arousal – Yuri does not strip for him but for his camera. When Isaac comes, he does not do so “imagining … his pubescent naked image”. Instead, the camera is still present, still acting to distance Isaac. The description is of Isaac ‘imagining capturing’ the image, perhaps suggesting his total immersion in his art so that fulfilment for him can only be through this art. His art could also assist him in the realisation of his fantasies; there is no need to act, the camera instead provides a safe haven, a refuge for himself and his fantasies. Perhaps too this description suggests the absolute moral taboo of his fantasy to himself – it cannot and must not be imagined except at a distance, through a lens. Christos Tsiolkas here is dealing with what it means to be an ethical human although he places a possible key to his protagonist’s dilemmas, tantalisingly so, only later in the novel with the depiction of young Isaac’s affairs. Here, though, the distance that art provides allows for full confrontation, whether acknowledged or not, with one’s desires. This confrontation is restrained by art and, together with the boy’s openness, part of the radical ethics that Tsiolkas presents in his novels.
In The Slap, it is Richie who has the “responsive penis”, especially in relation to Hector. It is this penis which lets him down in its instinctive reaction in the men’s changing room at the local pool when he views the nude Hector and they come face to face (Tsiolkas 2008: 451 – 452). In contrast to Dead Europe, where men seem to enjoy fantasising about and sodomising boys, and boys accept it, here, the reaction Richie notes is ‘distress and disgust in the older man’s eyes’ (452). It is this reaction that mortifies Richie and leads to a series of events culminating in the novel’s second slap and Richie’s attempted suicide. These almost tragic consequences spring from Richie believing that ’Hector must think him a pervert… just a fag, a freak, all sick, stupid childish fantasies and dreams’ (452). There is no indication of a transition to a ‘dominating phallus’ or the assumption of patriarchal power (Greer 2003: 228). Instead Richie’s instinctive bodily reaction reinforces his own view of his childishness; his homosexual desires make him a fag and a freak.
One similarity in Tsiolkas’ male characters is the frequency with which they ejaculate or masturbate. Richie does so at least twice in his section of the novel., as do Hector and Harry in theirs’. Harry, Hector’s cousin, is the man who slaps Hugo, in an incident whose ramifications reverberate through the novel. Ken Gelder and Paul Salzman suggest that Dead Europe provides ‘a reductive view of commodification and transaction’ (given expression through the art of ejaculation, which occurs over and over again in the novel as an increasingly casual ‘event’)” (Gelder and Salzman 2008: 224). Perhaps, the casualness is only superficially so. In The Slapthere are many incidents involving ejaculation as well, particularly in acts of masturbation. Both acts are examples of ‘commodification and transaction’ in Harry’s case but also of much more. For the sexually active males, Richie, Hector and Harry, emphasis is on identification with their bodies as sources of pleasure, comfort and security. In Richie’s case, there is the added complication of his youth and embarrassment with his sexual urges. On the occasion when he does masturbate in his stranger-father’s unit, it is a disaster. Unable to decide what to do with his soiled underpants, he flushes them down the toilet, clogging the drain in the process. Although he watches in horror at first, he shrugs the damage off leaving it for his father to handle (438). This scene is a prelude to the subsequent events in relation to Hector. The boy is a figure in transition, relying on his body, needing it and sometimes let down by it. In this incident Richie eventually leaves a problem for an adult to handle. But, not all adults are trusted or can be in Tsiolkas’ world. On the last page of the novel, Richie realises that his mother and his friend Connie are the only two certainties in his life –‘that his mother was the best mum in the world, and that he and Connie would be friends forever (483). This is a high strike rate for the adults in the novel indeed. All who have their own chapters are not to be trusted as most have failed the boy. Richie’s mum is a minor character, not given her own chapter and Connie is on the cusp too, not fully an adult. When the novel ends with ‘Soon, unexpectedly, like the future that had begun to creep up on him, sleep did come’ (483); there is hope, though. This hope lies in possibilities, in the potential of what may be when there is openness to others, to the self. This is the hope that is located in boy Isaac in Dead Europe, in his acceptance of his sexuality, his body and his need for love. This is also the hope that resides in what Rowe calls Tsiolkas’ ‘instinct for ethics, the unformalised desire for a better world’ (Rowe 2008: 231).
But the endings of both novels are not all hopeful. In The Slap, there is the promise the boy provides for the future but what lingers is the distrust towards the male adult. The reader may question the role of the adult in this future and he may be found wanting. Dead Europe, too, concludes with the boy, but the boy as demon/spirit. In the last line of the novel, Angelo, the ghost of the boy Elias who is regarded as abject and Other, voices his triumph at his deal with Rebecca, Isaac’s mother: ‘Not alone but together.You and I, together for all of time, for all of eternity’ (Tsiolkas 2005: 411). To Noel Rowe, this is the final betrayal:
In order to seal the book’s analogies, so preoccupied with destructive sacrifice, so privileging hate over hope, the book needs to sacrifice the mother. In a narrative full of sacrifices, she is the last scape-goat, the sacrifice through which the book ensures its dark purpose. (Rowe 2008: 237)
Yes, Rebecca is sacrificed but she is not always presented as a mother in the novel. She is also Reveka, Michaelis’ daughter, in a key back story. At the start of the novel, she is described as vilifying the Jews to her children (Tsiolkas 2005: 3 – 5). By the end of it she gives her blood and her soul to save her son – ‘If you save my son, Lord, the Devil can have my soul’ (Tsiolkas 409). Tsiolkas is not privileging hate over hope. Instead, he is merging a pair that embodies fundamental polarities on many levels – good/evil, light/dark, Jew baiter/Jew. Yet, neither one of the pair can be considered entirely good or evil – each has shades of both. Tsiolkas therefore concludes with a reinforcement of the need for the collapse of Self/Other boundaries. And this, while painful and wretched, is ultimately hopeful.
The role of the Radical Artist
Germaine Greer argues that the figure of the boy in Western art can be ‘sexualised with impunity’ (Greer 2003: 228). In Dead Europe, neither of the paedophiles is overtly or specifically punished. Isaac is educated – sexually, socially – and is never merely sexualised, although he may be feminised, by himself as well as by his older lovers. Gillian Dooley in her review of the novel says,
It is a measure of the distance of this book from mainstream morality not only that sympathetic characters occasionally express anti-Semitism, but that paedophilia is not always condemned. Isaac himself remembers with gratitude the 60-year-old man who introduced him to sex at the age of thirteen. (Dooley 2)
This book may be distanced from ‘mainstream morality’ but it is interested in the ‘ethical human’, as Tsiolkas indicates. In his 2008 essay, ‘On the Concept of Tolerance’, Tsiolkas affirms his approach to tolerance. His stand on the role of the writer and artist is vital reading for those who question his integrity as a writer. It is essential, Tsiolkas feels, for the writer, the artist, to be ‘blasphemous’, to:
always exist in a position of readiness to opposition, a consciousness that we live in a state of emergency; not an emergency as articulated to us by politicians or the media but as a concrete reality that defines our past and present and our potential. (Tsiolkas, Haigh and Wright 2008: 48)
Writing blasphemously then is not just to shock or outrage but to articulate ‘concrete reality’. Paedophilia – and indeed sex with minors, the use of drugs, slapping a child not your own – need not be either vindicated or condemned but it must be explored as a reality of the ‘state of emergency’ we live in.
… we are required, I believe, to always look towards that defined as unspeakable, intolerable, traitorous, seditious, evil and abject in order to ensure that the violence enacted against its expression is given a voice, shaped into a memory. (Tsiolkas, Haigh and Wright 48)
There is much in Dead Europe that is, for mainstream society, insufferable, nasty, unendurable while The Slap tapers off this trend, incorporating fewer elements of evil and the abject. But both are controversial novels, attracting much comment and reaction from critics and readers. In voicing the unspeakable, Tsiolkas is aware that there will be a reaction and this reaction needs to be articulated, recorded, reviewed and acknowledged for a process of ‘political and social emancipation’ to take place (Tsiolkas, Haigh and Wright 49). An essential component of this process is:
[t]he tolerance of the radical artist… a radical, disturbing, dangerous tolerance; heretical, blasphemous, cruel. It has to speak on behalf of not only the oppressed, the imprisoned, the condemned, it also has to refute the silencing of the racist, the inhuman, the murderous, and, dare I say it, even the fascistic. (Tsiolkas, Haigh and Wright 49)
While the radical artist has a responsibility to speak, to refute the silence and recognise the violence around such subjects, Tsiolkas recognises that ‘this radical dissent may even require the ardent opposition of the activist, the liberal and the socialist’ (Tsiolkas, Haigh and Wright 49). Only then can debate and confrontation take place. He also realises its drawbacks – the concept of the radical artist is ‘romantic’, ‘impossible’ and ‘dangerous’ – but it is vital for the ‘political and social emancipation’ that Tsiolkas argues for (Tsiolkas, Haigh and Wright 49). It is this attitude toward tolerance, toward what society needs, that allows the representation of the paedophile unbound by the trappings of conventional morality. To allow only silence, and worse, suppress the articulation of all viewpoints, would be to fail as an artist.
Ethical Responsibility – Infinity and the Face of the Other
The representation of Isaac, who could also be labelled a paedophile, is complex. No direct psychological links are made with his experiences during his impressionable teen years and his adulthood but there are at least two instances when he ejaculates after imagining himself having sex with boys who ‘could not have been more than eleven or twelve’ (Tsiolkas 2005: 43). Emmanuel Lévinas writing of ethical responsibility in Ethics as First Philosophy presents his notion of the Face of the Other. This concept encapsulates his belief that responsibility for an other exists even prior to self consciousness. This is a responsibility that primarily articulates as a command not to kill, but Lévinas also considers the potential of contact with the Face of the Other as an opportunity for claiming responsibility for the Other:
The Other becomes my neighbour precisely through the way the face summons me, calls for me, begs for me, and in so doing recalls my responsibility, and calls me into question. (Hand 1999: 83)
In Totality and Infinity Lévinas elaborates on this Face. It is not corporeal or tangible but rather allows for recognition of alterity between ‘I’ and an Other (Lévinas 1979: 197). For Lévinas, the Face encompasses ‘[t]he idea of infinity, the overflowing of finite thought by its content’. Infinity, a key concept for Lévinas, is one that he distinguishes from totality. It relates to the mind – ‘The idea of infinity is the mind before it lends itself to the distinction between what it discovers by itself and what it receives from opinion’ (Lévinas 25). This process of discovery involves ‘the relation of thought with what exceeds its capacity, with what at each moment it learns without suffering a shock. This is the situation we call welcome of the face’ (Lévinas 197).
The welcome of the face, then, relates to a learning of the Other, and, by implication, of the self, a learning that may occur gradually, through perhaps a recognition of what has so far been elusive, outside thought or comprehension. The adult Isaac does learn; he recognises the alterity of the Other and in doing so learns about his self. Every sexual fantasy Isaac has about pre-teenage boys is accompanied by a sense of shame, regret, guilt, learned through confrontation with the unspeakable, rather than the simple silencing of it, as he might have learned from Signor Bruno. If Isaac is representative of the fallen for much of the novel, he also represents the fallen who must live in the world of conventional morality. Even as a vampire, Isaac is aware of, and called into question by, the other. Dead Europe is an exploration of the ethical – the protagonist does face the infinite; he does learn. The practice of art is, for both Isaac and Tsiolkas, the hedge against violent, spontaneous and thoughtless ego and its desire to consume the other. Its role is not to suppress or violently silence the unspeakable, but to voice that otherness, to remain open to the reality of that other, and the Other.
How is Tsiolkas’ representation of the boy illuminated by Lévinas’ notions of infinity, totality and ethics? Isaac matures in the course of the novel in relation to both infinity and totality: emphasis is on Isaac, his radical openness as a boy, his more radical and abject openness to the extremities of the other, his use of art as the mirror through which a relationship to the other is both voiced and restrained, and his eventual regeneration through the blood of his mother and lover.
In The Slap the emphasis is different. Eight characters each get their own chapter. Within each chapter, the central character may attempt to comprehend what is infinite in relation to their world but is definitely portrayed within the limits of totality, that is, what they know or experience. In the last chapter of The Slap, named after Richie, links are established through Richie to both four-year-old Hugo and the adult Hector. These links involve the body – if Richie relies on his body, so does Hugo. The latter is breast-fed and is constantly depicted in a mutually needy relationship with his mother, Rosie. As with the incident of the slap of the title, the breast feeding has as many responses as there are characters. In general, the adult males are repelled or embarrassed – Harry thinks Rosie is a “silly cow” who is ‘breeding a little faggot’ (129). Aside from the incident at the pool which reveals Richie’s sexual and bodily desire for Hector (451 – 452), other connections are established between them, with Richie idolising him and basing the hero of the fantasy epic he is writing on Hector (446). Also, the two are drug users. The first and last chapters of the novel have lead characters that do drugs though neither knows of the other’s habit. These links may be insignificant but they indicate connections through consecutive generations of males with focus on the youth Richie centrally located between the other two. Each character may exist within his totality but cannot be immune to the other. Hector’s derision and disgust at Richie’s erect penis at the pool, his inability to welcome the face of the Other, results in a failure of his responsibility towards the other. But Richie does not fail in his ethical responsibility towards Hugo. He associates himself with Hugo, anticipating his reaction to events because Hugo ‘was a lot like him’ (129). Richie is instrumental in trying to educate and discipline Hugo when Hugo spits on an old man (455 – 459). His anger at Hugo, his empathy with the old man’s ‘recked dignity’ (459), his vexation at his inability to make the adults Rosie and Gary realise the wrong done to the other mark Richie. He is the character reaching for the “better world” (Rowe 2008: 231), attempting to understand what is infinite and to reach out to the Other. But he is still on the cusp. He cannot make the adults understand and ends up ‘crying exactly like Hugo had been, crying like a baby’ (459). His mother’s reference to him as her ‘sweet baby boy’ when he almost dies (468) reinforces the impression that Richie is still considered a child. In this final chapter of the novel, although links are established between Richie and both younger and older males, Richie’s seems to be the voice that may grow to be that of the tolerant artist that Tsiolkas urges as vital in society. Certainly it is in him that potential is located although he marks the transition from toddler to adult but forever remains on the cusp.
Christos Tsiolkas does not hide his characters, the events in their fictional lives and their reaction to these events, from readers. In this he is performing the role of the radical, tolerant artist, refusing to suppress or silence the abject, unspeakable elements in individual and social life. It remains for the reader to question their own responses to his texts. Multiple unspeakable possibilities are revealed, but how do we react to the revelations? Tsiolkas writes blasphemously so that we may debate, perhaps reaching for comprehension of what is infinite, what is usually safely left hidden, or worse, violently suppressed. It is not just the boy who is on the cusp, or on the verge of uncertainty, in Tsiolkas’ novels. Characters, societies, institutions are on a precipice. What we as individuals and communities are in transit towards needs to be interrogated as Tsiolkas himself interrogates societal constructs and pressures. It is only when we interrogate our past and our present, as Christos Tsiolkas does, that we may consider our potential, and what is of real ethical worth.
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