Review of “Europa” by Tim Parks
Boston Sunday Globe, Sept 27, 1998
By Katherine A. Powers
The English ex-patriot, Tim Parks, has written nine novels since 1985, works that are similar to each other chiefly in being brilliant black comedies, each progressing a little further in its investigation of the nature of identity and the existence – even possibility – of self. If this does not seem promising material for comedy, let me say that his heroes are both keen observers of the follies of others, and as unlovely a collection of selfish men as you could hope to meet anywhere. Their observations, their taking of umbrage and sublime self-absorption make me laugh, but have offended readers who are deaf to irony. Because of this, I guess, Parks’s reputation has been made less by his ambitious and astonishing novels, than by two memoirs of living in Italy: Italian Neighbors (1992) and An Italian Education (1995). Fine and entertaining, and penetrating, as far as they go, these little books don’t stop you dead in your tracks as the novels do. Still, it may be that Parks’s reputation as preeminently a novelist has finally been secured with his having been shortlisted for the Booker Prize last year for Europa, just now being published here.
In this novel, Parks has moved from black to bleak comedy, setting it in that most boreal of places, the mind of a man undergoing what we like to call a mid-life crisis. Jerry Marlow is a low-ranking teacher of English at the University of Milan; he is 45 years old, divorced, and shattered from a disastrous love affair. He is on his way from Milan to Strasbourg on a bus with a group of teachers and student supporters whose mission is to present a petition to the European Parliament protesting their second-class status at the university. The whole thing makes him sick with its phoniness and irrelevance; but he’s there because she’s there, the woman who blasted his life, whose name we only divine at the novel’s end.
What follows is not only an excursion into the vast mindscape of jealousy with its rich veins of loss, anger and disgust, but also a sustained meditation on modern awfulness. The novel might be considered a latter-day Lamentations against the exaltation of unity, standardization and replication, against the clap-trap of problem solving, consequenceless responsibility and the incessant moralizing that, when not utterly irrelevant, is fraudulent and self-serving to the core. Like the prophet Jeremiah, Jerry can’t deplore the ways of the world without making brooding observations on his own suffering: his observations on the state of Europe resonate powerfully with his reflections on the history of his terrible love affair.
As he showed most spectacularly in his last novel, Shear, Parks is a master at uniting character and plot with subtly recurrent themes, at deft allusions and resonances between inner and outer action. Here the themes are the large ones of unification and openness, so-called, in both Europe – where they are a travesty and a boondoggle – and in his love affair, where he had deluded himself into thinking the two of them as being one in spirit and passion, where she had insisted on “honesty.” The novel is shot through, too, with smaller, more cunning themes, ones such as the role of Napoleon in both Europe and Jerry’s tumultuous affair.
After somewhat heavy-going in the first half – during which it is hard to know what exactly this book is about – the novel suddenly snaps into focus and its themes coalesce. Standing in the square outside the “rigorously floodlit” cathedral at Strasbourg, Jerry is overwhelmed with revulsion for mass culture, his thoughts on it alternating and feeding off the memory of his having succumbed to the urge to reveal all to his wife, to come clean. That heartless act of supposed honesty and openness now appears identical in its speciousness with the sanitizing impulse of modern Europe: to neuter and make anodyne everything ancient and medieval by sandblasting, cleaning and illumination.
Looking at the cathedral’s facade, he reflects that it is impossible “even to imagine these stony martyrs being in the gloom now, impossible to imagine these angels and gargoyles in a dark wind or under moonlight … Impossible to see them … potent in the gloom, sacred in darkness or starlight … These monuments have been neutralized by light, … Squares where people hanged and lynched and guillotined each other and, in general, committed all sorts of irremediable crimes, are now attractive areas of floodlit public art, … Apposite to this, he wonders, “Will I ever be able to sandblast and floodlight her image,” and turn it “into an attractive, decorative landmark in my mental landscape? Will my wife ever be able to do the same with me…?”
For all this light, events take a dark turn. Jerry’s colleagues appoint him to be their spokesman before the Petitions Committee, delayed because of an emergency meeting on Bosnia. In a scene of ruthless bathos, Jerry relinquishes his integrity, invokes the spectre of Bosnia and gives an address of minding-boggling, cynical drivel. It is received rapturously, proving what Jerry, in his earlier, recalcitrant self on the bus, had observed as his fellow passengers surrendered themselves to “The Dead Poets Society, “we all enjoy feeling that we’re on the right side and revelling in our sentiments.” A final tragedy and a shocking revelation push the novel into the darkest region of irony. It is a triumph.