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As the lazy hours while away, tensions mount: Disagreements and longstanding differences flare between guests. The children quarrel over toys and videos. Hector is on edge waiting for his teenage mistress to arrive and takes some speed with a friend of a friend. The stunned silence of the onlookers is only the first sign of the shock and outrage that ripples through the community. The following chapters, each told from the point of view of one of the barbecue guests, depict what happens next.
Police are called to the scene. Harry, a wealthy businessman, hires a well—connected lawyer to represent him, while his working—class accusers, increasingly embittered and seeking justice, end up with a court—appointed attorney. On trial are not just the slap and the moral question of whether any adult is ever justified in hitting a child, but also the values and lifestyle choices of the accusers, who live in public housing and still breastfeed their three—year—old.
Tsiolkas effortlessly slips in and out of their widely varying perspectives, laying bare their most difficult truths. Brutal and compelling, The Slap portrays a world where the natural human yearning for safety and security is always threatened by a darker current of destruction and desire.
Tsiolkas is also a playwright, essayist, and screenwriter. He lives in Melbourne. This book revolves around a central, powerful incident: the titular slap. How did you settle on this as your subject? Was it always clear to you that you would tell the story with this particular structure, using a prism of different perspectives? It was the structure that came first. I knew that I wanted to write a contemporary novel, a novel that was about my city and my culture as we all live now.
I wanted to write about class and gender, about ethnicity and place, and I knew that I needed a structure that would allow for multiple voices, that would allow for differing perspectives. One of my favorite films of all time is the Japanese classic Rashamon , directed by Akira Kurosawa. That film is set in medieval Japan and retells the story of a rape through five different perspectives.
It is a film that challenges us to ask questions about the nature of truth. It struck me that our contemporary age is characterized by contested notions of authenticity, that we live in a pluralist world where we are very aware that our gender, race, and sexuality play a large part in how we interpret the world.
The structure of having multiple voices allowed me to reflect, through the writing, something of what it is like to live in our world now. It kept the writing process interesting, kept me on my toes.
It was not dissimilar from the barbecue that is described at the beginning of The Slap. My parents had invited friends and family to a big barbecue. At one point the four—year—old son of a close friend was playing in the kitchen while my mother was very busy cooking, baking, preparing an astonishing amount of food: there were the meats, two chickens in the oven, there were spinach pies, roast vegetables, and endless salads.
The little boy was playing on the floor, opening and shutting cupboards, and my mother kept ordering him to stop.
At one point he opened a cupboard and two or three pots and pans fell to the floor. My mother, harassed, took hold of him and very lightly, softly, patted him on the bum. Now, I want to make sure it is understood that there was no violence in what my mother did. The incident was promptly forgotten and we all continued having a grand day at the barbecue.
She is a migrant from Greece, who was raised in that terrible period of Greek history where she experienced both the Nazi Occupation and the horrifying civil war that tore Greece apart after the cessation of World War II. She grew up in a culture where she was denied education because she was a woman, a culture where she was beaten if she as much as dared look askance at a man.
It felt like a gift, having observed the incident I described above. I knew I had the beginning of my book, that it would start at a Melbourne barbecue, and that it would involve an adult who slapped a child who was not his own.
It is such a simple idea but I knew it would allow me to explore questions of family and honor, questions of cultural shift and cultural change. One of my frustrations with much of Australian literature has been how it still represented a homogenous Anglo—Celtic culture that did not tally with my experience of growing up in a city such as Melbourne.
After World War II, Australia undertook a period of mass industrialization that resulted in a doubling of its population and the coming into the country of hundreds of thousands of migrants initially from southern Europe, and then increasingly from Asia and the Middle East, which profoundly changed the makeup of the population.
I wanted to write a novel that gave voice to this experience. For such reasons and also because of the music! I feel more at home in the United States than I do in Europe. However there are three main differences between the Australian and the American experience I want to outline because I think they are important for understanding the book. First, we never had a revolution and so our colonial ties to Great Britain have never been severed.
It was not until after the end of World War II that non—Western Europeans were allowed entry into the country and the act itself was not officially abolished till Second, having traveled through the United States, the fact that Australia was never a slave colony means that we have subtly different ways of understanding race and racial oppression from the Americans.
African Australians are people who have come from Africa or whose parents were migrants or refugees from Africa, largely over the last two decades. Third, and I think most important, the most vexing and difficult political question for us Australians is the continual dispossession of the Aboriginal people from their land and culture.
No other issue more troubles our nation and it is the reason why so many of our great works of art have been attempts to deal with this history. One of the continuing tragedies of our ongoing inability to heal the wounds of racism here in Australia is that too many indigenous youths are destroyed by alcohol and drugs.
Bilal has found, through Islam, a means of transcending the violence of such a past. That too is a provocative choice but I think faithful to an experience, and possibly one Americans can recognize from their own history of racism. The geography of Melbourne and its various neighborhoods plays an important role in this book—in some cases, almost defining the characters and their social status. Do you view geography as a kind of social destiny? Melbourne is my city—I know it, understand it, I fall in and out of love with it.
I think it is important as a writer to not forget what we have learned as readers. Readers are willing to be introduced to a city or a place as a character, to discover its neighborhoods, geography, sights, and smells through the power of words. Do I think that geography is social destiny? The Slap is a novel about the middle class and one of the things that defines the new middle class is gentrification.
Melbourne was a very industrial city, its inner neighborhoods were migrant and working—class until only very recently. I wanted to have characters reflect on the changes in their city, and I hope that through such reflections a reader anywhere in the world can identify with how physical space is as much a marker of memory as is family, as is love and desire. A reader could potentially find a sly commentary in there.
Do you think these characters would be more psychologically evolved or even happier if they were more directly engaged with bigger issues? The novel was written at a time when Australian culture was the richest it has ever been, where we were the wealthiest we had ever been.
Concurrent with the rise of such wealth was a growing sense of entitlement. Now I hear that word everywhere. I probably would question how true the old myths were, but undoubtedly I believe that we have grown more selfish in our culture. I am a man who wants to think of political questions.
I am also very aware of the possibilities and opportunities that I have, that come from the struggles of feminists, civil rights activists, from many committed individuals in history who suffered to allow me to live as an openly gay man. I feel I want, in my life, to honor that history.
I am often shamed by how I fall short of that goal. I think the sense of entitlement that so many people now have is corrosive. It does create selfish communities, selfish marriages, selfish families.
I am also equally wary of a self—righteousness that I find in many of my peers, and I fear that I see it too often in myself. It was very important in writing the book that I was honest about the lies we tell ourselves, the many small and big compromises we make in order to not be challenged or to not have our comfort disturbed.
I fear that our present culture is not a brave one but I wanted to be honest about my own shortcoming as a man. I have felt shame, I have betrayed people I love, I have hurt people out of spite and selfishness. I wanted to be honest about my generation and the only way I found I could do that was to be as honest a writer as I could. My own favorite character in the book is the old man Manolis. But he does not have that sense of entitlement that I see in so much of my generation; he does not have that self—righteousness.
He knows there is a bigger world out there than himself. I think many of us have forgotten that. Those kinds of books make me want to drown myself in whiskey just to rid myself of the stench of both entitlement and righteousness. Those books stink of the worst of the contemporary middle class. An interesting element of your narrative structure is that these very disparate and sometimes at—odds characters tend to view one another very similarly.
Are you suggesting that there are certain universal truths about people? I understand this thinking. Of course I do, this is why I have chosen the structure that I have in the novel, to have the narrative be taken up by eight different characters, to have the reader constantly have to shift their identification, to have to question their conclusions. But given all that, yes, I do believe in the reality of universal truth, that there are experiences that can be understood across time and space.
The films I love, the books I adore, the paintings and music that mean the most to me, they all prove this. I am not being deliberately cryptic here. I will speak now as a reader rather than as a writer. I know that the best books, the books I love most or unsettle me, upset me, disturb me the most, touch something of the universal even when the particulars of narrative, characters, place, and time have nothing to do ostensibly with the geography and biography of my own life.
For readers and writers to reject the universal is to betray the very possibility of fiction. How, as a writer, do you manage to make a difficult and flawed character sympathetic?
If I assumed that readers were only interested in characters that were sympathetic, then I might as well give up writing. Rosie represents the worst of the self—obsession, the entitlement and self—righteousness I associate with my own generation. But I think it is that I see those traits in myself that allow me to try and imagine her world, her thinking, her confusion, her determination.
I think that if a writer is faithful to an experience, then that is one way that you can allow a reader to enter the consciousness of even the most difficult of characters.
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As the lazy hours while away, tensions mount: Disagreements and longstanding differences flare between guests. The children quarrel over toys and videos. Hector is on edge waiting for his teenage mistress to arrive and takes some speed with a friend of a friend. The stunned silence of the onlookers is only the first sign of the shock and outrage that ripples through the community. The following chapters, each told from the point of view of one of the barbecue guests, depict what happens next. Police are called to the scene. Harry, a wealthy businessman, hires a well—connected lawyer to represent him, while his working—class accusers, increasingly embittered and seeking justice, end up with a court—appointed attorney.
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas: review
The Slap in question is delivered by Harry, a brutish Greek-Australian garage owner, to Hugo, a brattish three year-old, who has threatened his son Rocco with a cricket bat at a suburban barbecue. Rarely can a hasty rebuke have had such lingering repercussions. Tsiolkas takes this striking incident as the starting point for a painstaking exploration of Australian domestic life. The cultural, ethnic and social mix of his characters makes Melbourne seem as much of a melting pot as Manhattan. Such diversity is miles away from the bland suburban fantasy promoted by Australian soap operas such as Neighbours and Home and Away.