The hills are alive with the sound of chaos
Irish Times, March 11, 2006 Saturday
By Eileen Battersby
Never has the need to empty one’s mind been as convincingly, or as brilliantly, illustrated as in Tim Parks’s full-blooded Cleaver. In a career spanning more than 20 years, and 13 novels, this most deliberate and underrated of English writers has consistently entered the more unattractive corners of human consciousness, with increasingly sophisticated and mature results. Never overly concerned with style, he is instead a no-nonsense writer who invariably has something to say and tends to say it with robust candour, few apologies and a mastery of controlled indignation.
The narrative opens almost as reportage with its central character, Harold Cleaver, a successful journalist and larger-than-life public figure, on the retreat. Just as he should be buoyed high by having humiliated the US president in a high-profile television interview, Cleaver suffers the uncomfortable sensation of public scrutiny on the publication of his son’s embarrassingly autobiographical novel.
Parks is studying a man who, through all forms of material excess and sexual excess, has in one dramatic leap, resigned his job, left mid-life crisis far behind and is instead running scared from the chaos in his head.
At no time is Cleaver presented as the buffoon or a caricature which he so easily could have become. Martin Amis would have had enormous, linguistically charged fun with material such as this – remember John Self in Money? But Manchester-born and Italian-based Parks is not like that.
As he has demonstrated in the finest of his novels, the Booker shortlisted Europa (1997), Destiny (1999), Judge Savage (2003) and now in Cleaver, he is interested in human behaviour at its messiest and he explores this squalor with disciplined measures of anger, realism, humour and humanity.
Cleaver emerges as a wholly believable monster, the product of fame and the suffocating freedom it imposes. Reading his son’s novel provides the spur which sets him off on a trip to the mountains. It sounds penitential; he takes only the clothes he is wearing and heads off, determined not to use his mobile phones
Harold Cleaver, big-shot journalist, of course has more than one. Left in his wake is Amanda, his sparring partner of some 30 years and the mother of their four children, including the novelist son. There was also the beautiful daughter who died tragically. Amanda and Cleaver have never married yet her hold on him is as tenacious as is his determination to do as he pleases and remain faithfully unfaithful.
Cleaver, a divided and divisive character living up to his name, takes flight. The journey is well described, Cleaver leaves London and lands in Milan before setting off for the South Tyrol and the Austrian border. Parks makes good use of the geographic contrasts, Cleaver may as well have arrived in Mars. The Alpine setting is copybook picturesque, neither he nor the locals can understand a word of each other.
Having initially settled in an inn run by a silent, concerned woman, Cleaverdecides he needs complete solitude and wants to find a place high in the mountains.