Destiny, by Tim Parks (Random House)

 “Some three months after returning to England, and having at last completed – with the galling exception of the Andreotti interview – that collection of material that, once assembled in a book, must serve to transform a respectable career into a monument – something so comprehensive and final, this was my plan, as to be utterly irrefutable – I received, while standing as chance would have it at the reception desk of the Rembrandt Hotel, Knightsbridge, a place emblematic, if you will, both of my success in one field and my failure in another, the phone-call that informed me of my son’s suicide.”

Some will find the opening sentence of Tim Parks’s latest novel brilliant; others will have wandered off to make coffee. The clincher is the final clause, but the real subject of sentence and novel is the sinuous, digressive, helplessly articulate mind of its narrator. By turns arrogant and insecure, perceptive and blind, humane and monstrous, this well-furnished mind holds forth, uninterrupted, from beginning to story’s end.

Comparisons with Henry James are inevitable – one appears on the back cover – but not very illuminating. Parks’s power is not of that magnitude. For both novelists, the period that ends a sentence is often a dot on a distant horizon, the journey to which demands breathing-stops along the way. And both are concerned with the understandings and misunderstandings that occur when two ways of life collide: brash, naïve American meets world-weary, artful European in James; emotionally stultified Englishman meets quickened, melodramatic Italian in Parks. But James’s sentences, even in those hard-going late novels, are always taking you somewhere worth the travelling. In Destiny, the difficulties, the digressions and qualifications often seem merely wilful. Wilfulness too has its point, adding dimension to characterization; but the effect on the reader is cumulatively one of irritation.

Christopher Burton is an English journalist living with his Italian wife in Rome. The work which engages his attention, even when sitting beside his son’s corpse at the undertaker’s, is his proposed study of Italian character, typified in the figure of Giulio Andreotti, the disgraced ex-Prime Minister. Patterns of behaviour, thinks Burton, repeat themselves down the centuries: the morally ambiguous Andreotti is merely a present instance or personification of a clearly discernible, age-old pattern of behaviour determined by the Italian context. Burton’s ruminations are somewhat undermined by the fact he himself is under investigation for tax evasion.

The suicide of his son shocks him into a confrontation with his own inner vacuity, the vacuity of his marriage and aspirations. Parks shows this with considerable subtlety, and Burton’s self-laceration is infected with self-absorption, self-justification, and lack of empathy with others. The world outside of himself has at times a hallucinatory clarity, at other times a muzzy greyness. Each perspective projects his mental state: the cocoon of ego remains intact.

Parks’s exploration, from the inside, of a disintegrating psyche is disturbing, unremitting, almost clinical. His anti-hero’s secular redemption at the end of the novel is seemingly arbitrary, but also moving and persuasive. Parks is no Henry James, but he goes deeper than many of his contemporaries.

Christchurch Press

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