Christianity stands on a foundational irony: the world-revolutionary creed of universal love emerged from a social and political ferment of rancour, hatred and humiliation. Christos Tsiolkas, the Australian novelist who a decade ago touched a nerve by vivisecting liberal fraudulence with The Slap, plunges now into the gore and moral stench of the early Christian period. Imagining the all-too-human reality behind the biblical narrative that shaped western civilisation, he evokes a world that is rank with anti-imperialist resentment, constant brutality, violence against women and, most obsessively, sexual shame.

Like Emmanuel Carrère’s recent nonfiction work The Kingdom, Damascus is primarily an attempt to understand the character of Saint Paul, the pious Jew and persecutor of Christians who, after an alleged encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, made it his life’s mission to spread Jesus’s teachings throughout the Roman empire.

It is easy to see why a novelist might become fascinated by Paul (or Saul, his Jewish name used in Damascus), a cauldron of contradictions whose fanatical will to power served a doctrine of compassion and kindness. To Friedrich Nietzsche, Paul was nothing less than a “genius of hatred”. In Tsiolkas’s imagining, he is a self-hating and repressed homosexual. “I will expire with my last breath,” he reflects after condemning a woman for adultery, then scurries to the brothels for carnal relief. “I have no heirs and I will not live. I don’t deserve to.”

Like Carrère, Tsiolkas is interested in Paul/Saul as a creative writer who edits and reshapes truth for literary effect. In the stoning scene that opens the novel, the doomed woman peers into Saul’s eyes and says, “If you are without sin, then cast your stone.” Tortured by lust and his own hypocrisy, Saul is thereafter haunted by the phrase which, of course, will reappear as the words of Jesus in the New Testament.

Tsiolkas’s characters speak not in the Charlton Hestonisms perilous to biblical fictioneers, but in blasts of steaming vulgarity

Tsiolkas is no stylist – in 400 pages there’s hardly a sentence worth lingering over. His method of driving home his themes and emotional concerns is to lay it all on thick, again and again, sometimes resorting to a blunt quantification of torment: “Saul’s cheeks burn with disgust and shame. And from hate; the hate outweighs the shame and makes him forget his disgust.” Fortunately, his characters speak not in the stilted Charlton Hestonisms perilous to biblical fictioneers, but in blasts of steaming vulgarity that breathe pungent life into the ancient setting. The workmanlike prose lights up when fire and blood charge through it. Damascus affords Tsiolkas ample room to indulge his penchant for the visceral, with its tone and atmosphere of a gruelling Islamic State documentary and numerous scenes of cruelty and torture. Saul hands over a boy to a pagan woman who, in retribution for the child’s insult to her goddess, has him castrated and raped, then cuts out his tongue. The child’s ordeal is a severe test of Saul’s faith.

One of the novel’s provocative speculations is that Jesus himself was raped by his persecutors. Pagans mock Jesus as a “raped and crucified god”. The insinuation, repeated across the novel, does seem plausible. As a method of execution, crucifixion was intended not only to cause physical agony, but to utterly humiliate the victim. Perhaps the Romans added violation to the indignities they piled on to a man they regarded as a dangerous and deluded rebel.

The chronology leaps back and forth across decades, alternating between scenes in the life of Saul and first-person accounts from other figures (some historical, some invented) at the dawn of Christianity. A bagginess of narrative structure threatens, until in its latter half the novel synthesises as a story of the two diverging paths the Christian religion could have taken. Another of Tsiolkas’s acts of fictive licence is to suppose that Jesus had a twin: “doubting” Thomas, author of the apocryphal gospel discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. While Saul declares it dogma that Christ was resurrected and would soon return to redeem “this fallen and brutal world”, for Thomas, Jesus’s true teaching was that the kingdom is already here: it exists between believers in Jesus’s message of love and forbearance.

Damascus is a Greek Orthodox apostate’s admirably serious-minded effort to fathom the origins of a morality that, Tsiolkas admits in an afterword, still offers him solace and guidance, while hinting at what Jesus’s teachings might have become. “He is returning”, echoes the increasingly plaintive greeting between Saul and the early Christians. When it dawns on Saul that a second coming may not be imminent, his melancholy longing still burns fierce enough to engender a globe-spanning faith: “This world is not enough.”

Rob Doyle’s Threshold is published by Bloomsbury. Damascus is published by Atlantic (RRP £16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15.

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