Christos Tsiolkas’s novel The Slap is, has been, for me a good reading experience. I read the novel, during my long subway rides to and from work, in November 2010, and 7 months later, much of the novel exists on the canvas of my mind as vividly illuminated flotsam.
What I’ve managed to salvage from the 500+ page-long novel is a notion that Tsiolkas is offering readers a bird’s eye view of contemporary, multicultural Australia. Multiculturalism, as seen through the primarily Greek-Australian eyes of the novel’s main characters, is both a boon and a curse for the evolving fabric of a 21st century life down under.
For the Greek immigrants—and being of Greek origin, Tsiolkas writes of them with panache—Australian multiculturalism is nothing but the modern state’s attempt to police both public and private human behavior so as to manage and contain intra-ethnic conflicts, if and when they arise.
Many of the characters in the novel seethe internally at the extremities to which a culture of political correctness has traveled and distorted one’s will to live freely. People are in loathing of being berated, rapped on the knuckles by the local judiciary and even arrested by the police for smoking inside a cab or for making an allegedly racially insensitive remark. Minor domestic actions, like slapping a brooding, recalcitrant child because he is trying to crack open another child’s skull with a cricket bat, become occasions for a major discourse on anti-child offence.
The excesses of multiculturalism is abhorred, and the excess is foreshadowed best in the beginning, when one of the central male characters, Hector, finds himself waking up on his bed next to his lovely Indian wife, Aisha, wholly dissatisfied and resentful. The experience of his conjugal bed-mating, he realizes, is artificially fabricated, not an expression of his authentic self. He has had to rein in his organic bodily functions, and sanitize his physical being to ensure sexual cordiality between him and his wife. He has had to ostracize a significant part of his physical reality simply to be sexually/conjugally acceptable and/or functional.
Hector likes to fart, but in the presence of his wife, he has to censor this most natural of his bodily desires so as to keep himself desirable in her eyes:
His eyes still shut, a dream dissolving and already impossible to recall, Hector’s hand sluggishly reached across the bed. Good Aish was up. He let out a victorious fart, burying his face deep into the pillow to escape the clammy methane stink. I don’t want to sleep in a boy’s locker room, Aisha would always complain on the rare, inadvertent moments when he forgot himself in front of her. Through the years he had learnt to rein his body in, to allow himself to only let go in solitude; farting and pissing in the shower, burping alone in the car, not washing or brushing his teeth all weekend when she was away at conferences. It was not that his wife was a prude; she just seemed to barely tolerate the smells and expressions of the male body. He himself would have no problem falling asleep in a girl’s locker room, surrounded by the moist, heady fragrance of sweet young cunt. Afloat, still half-entrapped in sleep’s tender clutch, he twisted onto his back and shifted the sheet off his body. Sweet young cunt, he’d spoken out loud.
His wife makes similar compromises. The absence of authenticity in their marital bonding spills over from body to mind, from outside to essence. Thus Hector and Aisha compromise on mutual truth-telling—if the truth is told, the edifice of the marriage will collapse.
But multiculturalism has not only bred a culture of self-policing; it is also upheld as the inevitable and alternative-less direction in which the destiny of the industrialized Western world—a world that has for ages been hosting within its demesnes the arrival and settling in of migrants from every conceivable corner of the globe—unfolds. Australia has no option but to endorse diversity in order to survive as a modern nation.
As a genuflection to the marvels of accepting diversity as the norm rather than the exception of modern life, the novel creates another male character—that of the very Australian Richie. The characterization of Richie, a young adolescent who comes of age as an openly gay man in a society that’s pretty Grecian (Tsiolkas refers to contemporary Greece—not the mythical Greece of yore—and its practices of rampant sexism) in its intolerance of anything but the purely heteronormative, is, I feel, the most refreshing in The Slap. Richie is gay and sensitive and very intelligent; most significantly, he is loyal as a driven in nail to his friends and is capable of making cardinal sacrifices to protect the sanctity of friendships. He is, in other words, selfless without being naively cacophonic about being so.
Richie, the independent-minded, attuned-to-the global complexity of the world (he realizes he is emerging into a global society, not just an Australian one) gay male is, I believe, Tsiolkas’ best gift to his readers.