I had preconceptions about Christos Tsiolokas. After reading The Slap for this month’s BBC World Book Club, a novel that is brutally honest about the greedy, violent, racist, misogynistic, bigoted, adulterous, self-serving vein that runs through human nature, I thought I might encounter an author, not with these traits but with a hard edge, a cynical view of life, an air of arrogant superiority. Christos Tsiolkas is one of of the most gentle, thoughtful and humble writers I have ever had the privilege to meet.
At today’s BBC World Book Club Tsiolkas listened to questions with humility, paused before he answered and gave responses that shone with integrity. When challenged about his portrayal of America as the playground bully, he said, ‘yes, I could have written that more elegantly.’ When asked why he didn’t give a point of view to Sandy, one of the characters he warms to most in the novel, he admitted: ‘When we look back on the novels we have written, we all have regrets. Not giving Sandy a chapter was one of my regrets.’ And when an Indian reader accused Tsiolkas of presenting his culture through stereotypes and failing to portray its spiritual complexity, he answered, ‘I don’t think I have the authority or the knowledge to write about the spirituality of Indian culture – I’m sorry that you felt I used stereotypes.’ He also spoke of the hurt he felt when the racist and misogynistic views of certain characters were conflated with him as an author. I can well imagine that a liberal, fair-minded human being like Tsiolkas would feel stung by the naive association that a writer and his characters are interchangeable. Even here, he accepted that ‘You can’t be standing over the shoulder of every reader.’
If Tsiolkas’s is humble, he is by no means weak. The ‘slap’ of the title (I asked a question about this), refers not only to the slap administered by Harry to the four year old Hugo, but also to Tsiolkas’s desire to ‘slap the Australian reader’, to wake him/her up to the ugly reality of middle class, urban existence. He is critical of the world he lives in and wrote this novel at a time when he felt pessimistic about the direction his generation was taking. Little did he imagine that this criticism would resonate the world over.
People have criticised The Slap for its vulgar language and unlikeable characters. I praise it for its courage and suggest that it is only in the hands of such a gentle, thoughtful, open-minded author that a truly honest – and in this case brutal – novel can be written.