This is a “companion novel” to Teach Us to Sit Still. For years I had meditation retreats on the brain. They were very new to me and had proved therapeutic. But as a novelist it was impossible not to see that this was a world quite alien to narrative, a place where the story-telling ego was silenced. In a Vipassana retreat there is only a here and now that unfolds without incident as the mind stills itself in the steady rhythms of pulse and breath.
On one retreat I served for 11 days in a busy kitchen providing strictly vegetarian fare for 150 meditators. They had taken their vow of silence of course, but not the kitchen volunteers; over the course of the retreat we exchanged our stories, our reasons for being there. Some of those volunteers, I discovered, were staying for months on end, retreat after retreat, sometimes serving, sometimes just sitting in meditation.
I wondered about these modern day monks and nuns. I thought about the desire to leave all narrative and self behind in the quiet emptiness of Vipassana. I tried to imagine for myself the narrative of the end of narrative. I couldn’t, just couldn’t do it. What came out instead was a novel that would pit that desire for silence and liberation from history against the budding of the oldest and most obvious story of all, when man meets woman.
A word about the title. The opening line of the novel is: Sex is forbidden in the Dagupta Institute, that is one of the advantages of working here. So I had originally thought the book could be called Sex is Forbidden. Later for various reasons, it seemed a good idea to call it The Server, and that’s what we did, for the hardback. But when all other countries publishing the book wanted to call it Sex is Forbidden, I admitted I’d made a mistake, probably over an anxiety of putting sex in the title, and we went back to that. What I liked about the line is the way it puts sex up front as an issue and immediately forbids it, removes it. This introduces us well enough to Beth Marriot’s conflicted state.
For the curious, there’s an article about the change in The Independent,
It’s a cracker – clever, funny and insightful, with complicated, conflicted and totally convincing Beth at its heart
Parks writes with detachment, wit and intelligence, and the troubled voice of Beth is entirely convincing.
An eminently readable and thought-provoking novel that teases you to the last page, and possibly beyond.
Tim Parks is very good at rubbing beliefs up against each other, which leads to subtle, unsettling questions … full of observations that are quirky, witty and deep
A wry and subtle story about what happens when the western self tries to lose itself.
The Dasgupta Institute… is sharply observed, a surprisingly dystopian environment of gender segregation and enforced privation.