Christos Tsolkias’s follow-up to the international bestseller The Slap tells the story of a boy swimmer named Daniel Kelly who comes so close to glory then spirals into unbridled aggression and self-hatred. Where The Slap saw a single act of violence and its repercussions witnessed from eight distinct viewpoints in individual chapters, Barracuda opens with a wiser but disaffected ‘Dan’ in Glasgow and the younger, driven ‘Danny’ in Melbourne sharing their narration non-chronologically, building towards the revelation of a key event from which their story turns from disillusion and destruction towards compassion and reconciliation.
In both Barracuda and The Slap Tsiolkas presents the worst in human nature through characters who can be difficult to fully empathise with. Along the way, he doesn’t shy from presenting language, attitudes and opinions that, though in wide circulation, may cause controversy or offence (not least the adoption of the term ‘wog’ among non-white Australians). So to kick off, I ask what compels him to write such dislikeable characters.
“Ha ha! When you spend so long writing your characters, inevitably you feel protective towards them. Now I’m mentally going through the book thinking ‘who’s dislikeable?’ I think I’ll step back and tell you how Dan emerged, and then hopefully address the question through that. Not only about Barracuda, but more broadly.
“So I had this voice of a young kid who became Danny Kelly, and he was really determined and really obsessed, really driven, really angry. And I wonder if anger is an element of what people are referring to when they say my characters are unlikeable. I thought at the beginning I was going to write a book about what it is to have success and what it is to fail, and what emerged is a story about what it is to experience shame, to do something really shameful and how to make atonement for that. In The Slap, in the chapter about the character who slaps the child it’s revealed that when he first got married he bashed his wife quite brutally, and if there’s a regret with that novel, it’s that I wish I’d included his wife’s voice as a chapter. I really only realised that when the TV series was being adapted and one of the writers, Emily Ballou, asked me why didn’t I write Sandy, Harry’s wife’s chapter; and I thought that’s a really good question and I wish I had. Because the story I was interested in there was, can you ever be forgiven for an act so violent? Can you ever redeem yourself from an act so violent? And that unanswered question, or that regret, became part of the story of Danny and the story of Barracuda.
Aggression, rage, resentment, connected to questions of masculinity and status, and power and envy and jealousy, have been things I’ve struggled with all my life. Fairly successfully, but not always so.”
“More generally I think I’ve always been someone who in my personal life is very committed to – or wishes he could be more committed to – a more ethical politics, a more ethical way of being. But I have always been aware of how – to put it baldly – you don’t always walk the talk. You often fail. Aggression, rage, resentment, connected to questions of masculinity and status, and power and envy and jealousy, have been things I’ve struggled with all my life. Fairly successfully, but not always so. And I actually think that is the case for most of us. But I found that to experience true shame is the moment where you can say you become truly adult, and you become truly aware that you can make moral judgements and have ethical standpoints, but you can no longer be smug about the world.”
So part of reaching adulthood is about conquering those instincts – and shame is also a big part of it?
“Yeah, I think for me. It’s by recognising the damage you do that you understand the consequences of not reining in those instincts – or excusing those instincts, which is probably much more common.”
Does that mean we all need to conform to get on in life?
“No, I don’t think that’s necessarily what I’m arguing… I talk about Australia, but I don’t think it’s only about Australia. I think it’s the same here in England and in a lot of places. The question of likeability has to do with wanting to go and sit in the cinema and see a reflection of ourselves, or sitting down with a book and reading a version of ourselves which makes us feel good. And that’s part of the joy of going to the cinema when I want to go and see a good romantic comedy, and when I want a really light read. But it’s not why I love cinema and it’s not why I love books.”
Yes, because the more memorable works of art are the ones that make you sit up and take notice…
“… and they’re sometimes the ones that make you chuck the book across the room because you recognise something in a character, in a situation, in a conversation, in a sentence, that reveals a darkness, a misery, a fear, that you have maybe not even articulated. It happened to me years ago reading Brett Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero. It happened to me reading The Devils by Dostoevsky. It’s that experience. And that’s not, as I said, the only experience of art, but that is one of the great treasures of what art can do.”
Putting the issue of likeability aside, there’s definitely a sense that we all present to the world something that’s quite different from what’s going on inside our heads, and there are disconnections between close family and friends, let alone among strangers. In a weird echo of an episode in The Slap, on my tube journey home last night in the same carriage there was this jovial-looking Asian guy eating chicken and chips, and an uptight middle-aged white bloke opposite him buried in a book, who looked up, sniffed the air theatrically and pronounced: It’s illegal to eat on the train! They had a bit of banter for a few minutes, each basically repeating their own standpoint for their own benefit rather than debating anything, and at the end of it the Asian guy, out of frustration, burst out: You don’t know me!
“Ha ha ha! You know what – isn’t that the kind of a spark that makes you want to write, an encounter like that? Doesn’t that spark your imagination about who are these men and what if I placed them in this situation, and what if someone else had said something, what occurs…”
Actually there was a third person involved, a young girl listening to music, who took her earphones out as things started to get heated to say: There’s no need to be rude. The Asian guy said: I wasn’t being rude. And she just said, Oh, that’s all right then, and put her earphones back on. So there you have a hesitant observer who feels the need yet doesn’t really want to engage… That’s not what we came here to talk about, though I guess it does scratch the surface of another big theme in your work, multiculturalism: what would you say are it’s high points and low points in Australia and in the world at large?
“Multiculturalism is almost an article of faith for me. I grew up in an Australia that was initially resistant to multiculturalism. Australia before the arrival of immigrants from across the world was a really staid place, really boring, really homogenous, a place that closed down early, with streets that had no life in them. And I came to adulthood in an Australia that was so much more alive and diverse, and all those words that we use when we defend multiculturalism. But also the experience of it is, as a little kid you make friends, and go into their homes, and someone explains to you what that shrine over there is, and you realise there’s this thing called the Buddhist, and your friend is a Buddhist, and your other friend is a Catholic and there’s this thing called the Catholic, and it’s all got a similarity to what’s happening in your home. It’s those things that you breathe in and take absolutely naturally and cannot help but go towards – just making you less closed as a person. That’s definitely the high of multiculturalism. I think the low of multiculturalism is that it becomes enmeshed in a political debate, and can be seen as only something of the modern period – there’s no recognition that urban spaces in lots of parts of the world have been multicultural for a long, long time, and that’s actually not been a disaster, these communities have been flourishing.”
How successful do you feel Australia is in terms of different communities living side-by-side – compared with Britain, for example? There are still many pockets here that are totally monocultural…
“There are still pockets in Australia that you would say are monocultural too. I think one of the great problems in Europe is that there’s been a cleaving of the relationship of labour to immigration. And I think that’s what Australia offered for a really long time – the possibility of going there and finding work. And through finding work, finding place, and through finding place, finding belonging. Part of what I feel about Europe is obviously coloured by my experiences travelling to Greece, where that relationship is completely gone. So you have a really dangerous situation where no one is working, and where resentments then go towards newcomers and new arrivals, and they’re somehow seen to represent the problem. I think we’ve been lucky for a long time in Australia that that hasn’t been the case. But my sense – and I’ll be quite clear I’m speaking as someone who is proudly and strongly leftwing – is that social democracy, and leftists and liberals across the Western world have been absolutely fucked at dealing with that question. In Australia they blame the working class for their racism, for their ignorance, and I think there’s a much more complex story, a much more difficult story. And it’s got to do with labour, with work, and it’s got to do with the fact that there’s a cosmopolitan class emerging who all have the box set of The Wire. They may have it with German subtitles, or Danish or Spanish, but they all watch the same programmes, they all drink the same coffee, they all take the same holidays. They all blame the working class in their country for being ignorant and racist and stupid, and they take no responsibility for that themselves. And you wonder why I’m angry…”
And yet you’re optimistic about the younger generation. But haven’t we had the tools for a better-rounded outlook on life since the 60s and 70s?
“You know that notion of hope against hope…? I think my generation came through the beginnings of a real social revolution in terms of gender, in terms of sexuality, in terms of race and class, all those things, but we still were coming from families and experiences where racism was part of the way we talked, and sexism was part of the way we were brought up. I’ll be really honest, it continues to be a struggle in moments of weakness or moments of fear, not to give myself over to a racist imagining or a sexist imagining, or even a homophobic imagining. Whereas I think maybe the younger generation doesn’t have to do that conscious work as strongly. So I think that’s where I’m trying to be hopeful – the acceptance of multiculturalism or multi-ethnicity, that you can be from anywhere, that you can have parents who come from different heritages, or different languages, and I love seeing that amongst the young kids. It’s like the air they breathe – it’s normal. And sexuality as well. That’s not to say there isn’t serious racism or homophobia going on. Of course there is, but the transformation in the last twenty years is unbelievable, when I think about it. From the point of shame and the experience of living a life hidden and in the shadows, to now where my niece can tell me casually about a friend who’s a lesbian and the gay group that they formed at school. It’s phenomenal really.”
‘Skip’ versus ‘wog’ was a very easy way of articulating a complex situation – skip being the Anglo-Celtic and wog being everything else. There is something about the notion of shame that isn’t only personal.”
With all this tolerance going on, hasn’t the term ‘wog’ had its day?
“Yeah, certainly here in England, where I realise it carries extra weight… But it’s such an interesting word – it’s one of those words that marks you in different ways in Australia. Yes, I think it’s had its day in the sense that that first wave that I’m part of, of immigration to Australia, is now so firmly part of Australian culture. No one is at all surprised by someone having an Italian or a Serbian surname and them being Australian. Now there are new waves of immigration coming particularly from Asia, South Asia, and from Africa, and there will be other terms… So in that sense yes, I think ‘wog’ has had its day. But the fact is there are still people for whom part of their sense of what they are as Australians has come from the use and abuse of that word, which means it will still have meaning for a few people, inevitably. Things don’t end abruptly.
“Back then, ‘skip’ versus ‘wog’ was a very easy way of articulating a complex situation – skip being the Anglo-Celtic and wog being everything else. There is something about the notion of shame that isn’t only personal. It can be national too. I think there’s a sense of shame that you carry as an Australian to do with the foundation of the nation, to do with the violence of dispossession, to do with the intolerable continuing racism towards the aboriginal people, and that’s part of a shame that you carry if you’re a fully conscious and thinking person. I don’t think it needed to be overtly addressed by Danny, but I think that’s there in the novel too. Maybe it is there every time we try and talk about this place called Australia.”
The single-mindedness that Danny commits to his swimming comes at a high cost. Do you think that Australia has an unhealthy respect for competitive sport? And does Western society generally set too great a store by competition?
“Yes I do think that. The short answer is yes to both. But what’s much more interesting for me is to take that question and ask it of what I do as a writer, and look at it in the context of art. I think there is an unhealthy competition in art and in writing, and there’s an unhealthy emphasis on the notion that art is more important than anything else. That’s a really destructive way of thinking about what we do. I love this life, genuinely love it, I would hate for it to be taken away. I just feel fucking privileged that I work as a writer. It’s a craft, it’s a labour, it’s a struggle, it’s all those things. It’s absolutely a great joy, but it’s not the most important thing, it should never come at the cost of a relationship, a family, of friendships, and I think the notion that it could be more important than those things is poisonous. Just as jealousy and envy make us as humans unlikeable – and I’m no fucking saint, I have that experience of jealousy and envy, but they’re really poisonous – just as with aggression and rage, and just as with racism and sexism and homophobia, you have to name them and you have to resist them and I think the world has become so competitive that it becomes harder and harder to do so.”
And at that personal relationship level, creativity itself is a delicate thing. If you’re in the zone you don’t want any interruptions and you can get really snarky with whoever is around.
“Yes, and God I hate it. I think that’s why it’s really important to treat it as work. I’m saying nothing new at all about this but, you know, Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, a space of one’s own, is really important. Even if that space is at the back corner of a public library, I think finding a space that is away from home is important to do the work. Because you can be so mean to your partner, you can be so ungenerous when you’re in that zone.”
How do you feel when you’re asked to justify the use of strong words in your work? Like ‘wog’, of course, and also labelling the elite school where Danny gets a scholarship as ‘Cunts’ College’.
“How do I feel? I feel tired when I’m asked to justify the use of such terms. Because I just feel so removed from the people asking that question, sometimes I don’t even know how to even begin explaining. Why are we policing language in this way? I understand that we have to be careful with language, of course we do, but I think there’s a real difference between taking care of and policing language. If someone can give me a better term for how to express something about what an elite privileged school is that’s better than Cunts’ College, I’d be really happy. I would go: OK, I’ve failed in my imagination. It was a term I knew was ugly and harsh, but I thought it was also funny because you don’t need to be in Melbourne, you don’t need to have visited Australia, you know exactly what type of school Danny is going to by the fact that his friends call it Cunts’ College. It’s Demet who coins it, by the way. I knew what I was doing, giving it to the girl…
Demet is Dan’s constant friend in childhood and in adult life. Since Dan is continually questioning his identity and reinventing himself – from Dan to Danny, or Dino or Barracuda; from someone blinkered by ambition to someone who can be seen to care about others – if she hadn’t turned out to be gay too, do you think Demet and Dan might have got it together? Or was his teenage attraction to women just something he was trying out because social convention suggested he should, and something he would inevitably get out of his system?
“On the question of sexuality in the novel, I was so conscious that I didn’t want to write the ‘coming out’ story. I’m sure there are ways to write it that are new, but that wasn’t the project I set out on in Barracuda and I knew it would take me away from what I really wanted to do. Part of what the episodic structure of the book was able to do for me is to let you the reader imagine all that happens in between. To imagine the coming out, or imagine the emergence of sexuality, imagine responses to it – I have faith that’s actually a joy for a reader to do, that you don’t need to be told. The questions you ask are really good questions, but they’re your questions about Dem and Danny. All I can tell you is this is how Dem came to me, this is how Danny came to me. But I think sexuality is much more complex and dangerous, and also much more exciting than even sometimes gay and lesbian politics allows it to be.”
“Yes it did. At the time I just wanted to make sure I remained fixed in my relationship and family and world, and to make sure I kept writing. I had a running commentary in my head going: I’m not affected, I’m not affected, I’m not affected, I’m not affected. And then also I lost my father, that padding and protection has gone, which makes everything else pale in comparison and puts things in perspective. All in all I thought I was dealing with it, that I was all right with the success, I didn’t have that burden of expectation, which was the only downside. But two weeks before the release of Barracuda in Oz I started to panic – I was like, fuck, what happens if it fails, what happens if it’s torn apart? How will I deal with this? There have been critical comments, but also a genuine generosity from people I really respect, not even intimates of mine, who said some very lovely things about the book. And so it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it was going to be – I can say now.”
I wanted to ask as well about the residency at Cove Park that you mention in the acknowledgements. How long was it, and how did your time in Scotland shape the project?
“Man, it was three months, it was absolutely so important to the writing of this book. I’d been thinking about Barracuda before that, I was thinking about Danny, I knew that I wanted to write about class. All those things were in play before Scotland, but maybe because I was outside my normal environment, and maybe also something about the experience of Glasgow in particular, the early struggles and cohesion among the working class, everything went into just letting me write. So I started writing in Scotland in the most beautiful part of the world, along the west coast of Argyll. It just seemed absolutely right that Scotland would play a part in the novel.
“I remember years and years and years ago going to Scotland and being in Glasgow, and sitting down and writing a postcard to a friend, and going: I’ve just seen where the Australian face comes from. Not mine, not the aboriginal, but the face that was presented to me as THE Australian face. I didn’t see it in London, I didn’t see it in Manchester, but I saw it in Glasgow.
Well I guess we did use to turn a number of Celts into convicts back in the day…
“Ha, ha, yeah! You guys have got your own shames.”
Moving swiftly to the last question, what are you writing next?
“At the moment, my friend, short stories I think are going to be a way of keeping myself working and writing. There are of course ideas, but I’m just going to get writing and let it work itself out… I mean, it’s fucking excellent being here, and being able to come across the planet to talk about your work. I think this trip has been – in spite of that neurotic, narcissistic writer’s voice, going: Do you deserve the success? Is the success going to harm you? All those infernal questions – this trip’s been the one where I’ve realised, oh man, people have been very generous, people have been very kind, people have been reading this book and I’m very privileged to have that experience. I just want to go back home now, celebrate that a bit, be with my boy and do a bit of celebrating, and then think about the next one.”
Christos Tsiolkas’s previous novels are Loaded, The Jesus Man, Dead Europe and The Slap, which won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize 2009 and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2010. He lives in Melbourne. Barracuda is published by Tuskar Rock, an imprint of Atlantic Books, in paperback and eBook. Read more.
Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer, and a founding editor of Bookanista.