In the white water
Sunday Telegraph, 27 February 2005
By Lewis Jones
In Parks’s new novel – his 12th – is an intriguing and triumphant oxymoron; a dance of micro and macro, of yin and yang; a ping-pong game between well-matched opponents.
It follows a group of Brits abroad – six adults, nine adolescents, deftly sketched and amusingly contrasted – on a week’s kayaking course in the white water of the Aurino river in the South Tyrol. These quotidian, predominantly urban lives are thrown into relief by their foreign pastoral, the forced intimacy of a campsite, the rigours and dangers of the rapids.
Characters are tested, priorities re-examined, relationships broken and formed. A timid teenager becomes bold. A young couple splits up. A chinless scoutmaster is slapped in the face. A middle-aged banker loses the trust of his daughter, revises his opinion of his dead wife, falls in love, and wonders if he can ever return to his bank. The volatile certainties of youth are nicely balanced against the adamantine doubts of maturity.
On this level, the story is a variant on the Ship of Fools theme. Though formally collectivised – the group is divided into three teams, the Louts, the Pigs and the Slobs – as individuals Parks’s characters are ultimately alone, atomised, so many Kayaks of Fools.
At the same time, the larger world intrudes in various ways. It’s the hottest summer on record. In France, old people are dying in droves, and in the Italian Alps the glacier-fed river is bursting and racing with wild melt-water – “the snows of centuries back, the blizzards of the Middle Ages” – which makes it more hazardous and prompts urgent consideration of the greenhouse effect. On a hike into the foothills, the party contemplates the surrounding peaks, “at once awesome and vulnerable”: “Your instinct was to shiver at the majesty, yet you were being told you had destroyed it.”
The host and course leader is Clive, a bearded, irascible and relentlessly didactic figure who has set up the school with Michela, his adoring Italian girlfriend-disciple. Clive has just run the gauntlet of police truncheons in the anti-globalisation demonstrations in Milan, and is en route for Berlin, where he will chain himself to railings and turn himself, perhaps, into a human bomb. While driving Michela nearly mad, he provokes his flock to hot debate about multinationals, Third World debt and so on.
It sounds formulaic when analysed, but the narrative is spontaneous, and has an unpredictable pace that bears the characters along like the river it describes so expertly, alternating between placidity and surprise, racing, as the paddlers gain in skill and confidence, to a helter-skelter climax. It might sound rather earnest, too, but it’s often bleakly funny.
To begin with, I jibbed slightly at the technical minutiae of kayaking – the splashdecks and helicopter rolls – but soon became enthralled and exhilarated by the dramatic negotiation of eddies, pour-overs, stoppers and holes. Parks is excellent both at the practice of white-water canoeing and at the motivation behind it. People who do dangerous things on rivers and mountains, argues one character, do so out of fear, “afraid of life beginning… afraid it will never begin… They’re things people do instead of living… To feel they’re really living, when they’re not in danger of living at all.”
The prose is as deceptive as the river. Switching cunningly between past and present historic tenses, disdaining quotation marks so that speech is submerged in the flow, casual and colloquial to the point of drabness, suddenly it plunges, boils and soars into descriptive poetry.
Here is the banker, for instance, taking stock of his surroundings: “Above the tents and the coloured clutter of the campsite, he lifts his eyes to climb solid slopes rising steeply through gleaming meadow and dark pine to shreds of bright cloud that drift among barren walls of rock.”
Parks has often written about Brits in Italy, where he has lived since 1981, teaching, translating (particularly Alberto Moravia, whose influence is evident here) and raising an Italian family. In several of his novels – notably his big hit, Europa (1997) – he has tackled the themes of group dynamics, and the clash of the private and the political. In Rapids he has excelled himself.