In his first novel since “The Slap” — which became an international bestseller, igniting debate over its depiction of the sexual and racial politics of Australia — Christos Tsiolkas chooses a telling phrase to describe a change of season. “Spring,” we are told, “had yet to beat back winter.”
This portrayal of climate as a fight is one of the recurrent images of competition that jostle against each other across the book’s 500 pages. Two school students walking down a corridor are engaged in “a contest, who will move aside first, who will break first”. Among the items stuck to the fridge door in the kitchen of a Greek-Australian family are a postcard from Europe and a photo of President Obama: symbols of the struggle within Australian culture between the roots of its first wave of immigrants and the cultural and economic superpower to which the nation increasingly looks.
In this antagonistic tale, the protagonist is, naturally, a competitor. Daniel Kelly is such a prodigy at swimming that he wins a scholarship to a posh Melbourne private school. At different times in a story that covers 16 years he is known as “Danny”, “Dan”, “Dino” and “Barracuda”, a nickname prompted by his ruthless power in the water. This range of appellations reflects the unstable identity of the swimmer, who suffers both class and sexual confusion.
Kelly’s coach is Frank Torma, an Australian of Hungarian stock; as befits the novel’s exploration of personal and national character, almost every major character is an immigrant or emigrant of some sort. In early chapters set in the mid-1990s, Torma believes that Danny has a shot at swimming for Team Australia in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. However, the reader soon suspects that this ambition has not been realised because — in interleaving sections that take place around 2010 — Dan (as he is now called) is living in Glasgow, with a male partner, and so phobic about swimming pools that he won’t even go in the water as part of his work as a carer for brain-injured patients.
One of the most impressive aspects of “The Slap” was Tsiolkas’s handling of narration: each chapter of that novel took the viewpoint of a different character, who picked up the story at a later stage in events. “Barracuda” is also structurally cunning: both strands (Dan in Glasgow and Danny in Melbourne) proceed non-chronologically. But whereas the triggering incident in “The Slap” — a parent’s attempt to discipline another couple’s child — was front-loaded, “Barracuda” takes the opposite approach to a crucial act of violence. We know from early on that the former swimmer has spent time in jail, but the precise nature of his crime is lengthily withheld, although hinted at tantalisingly and sometimes with clever misdirection.
The centrepiece of this long, involving novel is a magnificent 50-page sequence set on the night of the opening ceremony of Sydney 2000. By this time, we have long given up any expectation that Danny will be part of the team, but the exact logistics of his spectator status — involving leftover resentments from school and hatred of himself, his nation and many others — are exhilaratingly paced and staged.
“Barracuda” is the writer’s fifth novel and follows the previous four, especially “The Slap” and “Dead Europe”, in conducting a loud and provocative argument about what it means to be Australian. Half-Greek, gay and dubious about sport, Tsiolkas has the perspective of a triple outsider and, in both the Olympics opening ceremony scene and at a tense meal that takes place on Australia Day, characters challenge, with blistering invective, the image of the nation promoted by its politicians and marketers. In words that make John Pilger seem like a spokesman for the tourist board, a friend of Dan’s concludes of her country: “We are parochial and narrow-minded and we are racist and ungenerous and we occupy this land illegitimately and we’re toadies to the Poms and servile to the Yanks.”
Novelists may of course disagree with their characters, who may also dispute between themselves, and what makes “Barracuda” a profound work of fiction rather than an anti-government pamphlet is that the attractive aspects of the Australian character — wit, vigour, optimism — and the astonishing beauty of the light and landscape are also given their due: characters who try to leave Australia are generally drawn back.
The controversy that Tsiolkas’s fiction has tended to attract is not just the result of his arraigning of Australia. He favours a frankness of language perhaps only matched by his fictional fellow citizen, Sir Les Patterson. Offensive words appeared in “The Slap” with such regularity that some critics questioned whether Tsiolkas was at risk of crossing the line between dramatising derogatory language and endorsing it.
In the new book, Greek-Australians often continue to be “wogs” and gay men who father children (an intriguing subplot of the novel) are “superpoofs”. Tsiolkas’s sometimes startling dialogue is part of his mission — along with the explicit descriptions — to set down the texture of how people really live and speak. His characters have a visceral credibility rare in fiction.
The non-scatological language of “Barracuda” is filled with watery metaphors: “drowning”, “floating” and “freestyle”, among other words, have both swimming and non-swimming meanings. And, after “The Slap”, Christian Tsiolkas has written another novel that deserves to make a big splash.
Barracuda, Atlantic Books, 528 pages, £12.99
Mark Lawson’s “The Deaths” is published by Picador.