Chronicle of a Death
Sunday Times, 12 September 1999
By Lucy Hughes-Hallett
Tim Parks’s masterly new novel Destiny opens with a sentence with which Vladimir Nabokov would, I think, have been pleased. Containing no fewer than nine subordinate clauses, four of them folded parenthetically into others, it describes with aloof and scrupulous formality the circumstances in which the narrator received (and these words – abruptly plain – form the sentence’s long-delayed thunderbolt of a climax) ”the phone call that informed me of my son’s suicide”.
The bravura of that beginning is sustained throughout. Destiny takes us inside the mind of Chris Burton, a British journalist who has lived in Rome for most of his adult life, and who has an Italian wife whom he immediately, by taking that call. resolves to leave. They are in London when they get the news. Over the next two days they travel, ever-hampered by air-traffic-contro1 strikes, atrocious weather and Chris’s undignified disorders of the bowels and bladder, via Milan to Turin, where their son Marco died in a home for chronic schizophrenics, and via Novara to Rome. where he is to be buried, and where Chris happens, coincidentally, to be due to interview former prime minister Andreotti. At 10 points in this tragi-farcical progress we are made privy to everything that is passing through Burton’s mind. Immediate experience, reminiscence and anticipation merge. Keeping vigil by his son’s body, trying hard to keep his mind fixed on his loss, he cannot help recalling – in an abrupt, brief sentence – his mistress and the words with which, years ago, she dismissed him. Half-listening to a pair of strangers talking on a train, he is also wondering whether the pain in his gut is likely to kill him before the night is out, attempting to tease out the meaning of a note found among his dead son’s papers, wondering what to ask Andreotti, quoting Leopardi to himself and – because the consciousness through which these thoughts are streaming is a very clever, verbally adroit one – toying with puns and correspondences that link the state of the Italian railway system with the care of schizophrenics, and tax-law with the theology of pardon.
All of these flickering thought-processes are simultaneous. Parks contains them brilliantly in a narrative that moves from one to the other as sure-footedly as a circus rider changing horses. This is not a book to open at random, or to read drowsily late at night. But it offers the attentive reader generous rewards.
Burton’s grief is shattering. His all-too-human inability to rise to it, to become tragically ennobled, to forget the humbling demands of his body and of daily social intercourse (the kipper that keeps returning on him – the otiose politeness that prevents him cancelling appointments on the day of his son’s funeral) is grimly funny. And for all its intricacies and detours, Parks keeps his story moving steadily with a concealed but rigorous coherence, towards its unexpectedly forgiving conclusion.
Chris is in the process of writing a “monumental” book (tombs and memorials are omnipresent in this novel) about national character and the way that, in his opinion, it renders all human behaviour predictable. He himself, though, seems to have no idea, from moment to moment, what he will do next and why. At the outset of the book this is an irony to which only author and reader are privy – a joke on Burton. But gradually, as he becomes increasingly and explicitly aware of the extent to which he is out of control of his emotions – and even, as he becomes more and more distraught, of his actions – the joke becomes broader, more farcical and more heartbreaking.
Parks, like his protagonist, lives in Italy. He has translated Roberto Calasso. He is a professed admirer of Thomas Bernhard. This fine novel, intellectually sophisticated, formally ambitious, belongs to a cosmopolitan European tradition. But it is one that pays honour to the heart as well as the mind. It begins with a sentence of elaborate convolution and proudly buttoned-up cleverness. It ends with a sequence of short, nakedly declaratory ones, including the tritest and, for a man of Burton’s relentless self-consciousness and scepticism, the hardest to utter, “I love you.”