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Speaking in Tongues

Destiny

by Tim Parks
Arcade, 249 pp., $24.95

The opening of Tim Parks’s Destiny repays study; it sets the scene neatly, and is the only sustained upsurge of clarity and single-mindedness we shall experience for quite a time:

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. “I am sorry,” the Italian voice said. “I am very sorry.” Then replacing the receiver and before anything like grief or remorse could cloud the rapid working of my mind, I realized, with the most disturbing clarity, that this was the end for my wife and myself. The end of our life together, I mean.

Such control, such precision, such calm, such apparent logic! In the event, Destiny turns out to be a study in depth of the egotistical sublime, or the egotistical tormented, in the figure of its narrator and protagonist, Chris Burton. His consciousness is a spate of fissiparous reflections, declarations, contradictions, veering elusively between the logical and the irrational, and the reader feels it prudent not to miss a digression, a reference (even if it recurs repeatedly), since everything, it becomes clear, is intended. Double measures here, there may be, certainly no half measures.

Chris Burton is a distinguished British foreign correspondent, for long resident in Italy and a specialist in Italian affairs, seemingly in his late fifties, not too sound physically (he has had a multiple-bypass operation, and is currently suffering from blocked bowels and inability to urinate), but at the height of his mental powers, if hyperactivity is any guide. He has given up journalism in favor of writing a “monumental” work (the adjective recurs again and again, in self-aggrandizement or self-defense, finally in self-mockery)on national character and the predictability of all human behavior. After years of research, all that is needed to round it off is an interview with the disgraced ex-president, Giulio Andreotti:

Who is at once more himself and more exquisitely, as the Italians put it, Italian, than Andreotti? Had Andreotti ever, I asked myself, in all the years I reported on these matters, which were many, too many, been anything less than his irretrievably ambiguous self? Entirely predictable.

Andreotti will be the final demonstration and proof of Burton’s thesis. Hence it is highly inconvenient that Burton’s son, Marco, should choose this moment to kill himself. Yet the boy’s suicide offers an opportunity for Burton to leave his wife, Mara, who (in his eyes, and everything and everyone is seen through his eyes) is obsessively attached to Marco (while hostile to their elder child, Paola, an adopted Ukrainian girl), as well as rancorous, raucous, aristocratic, vain, flamboyant, theatrical, hysterical, flirtatious, once beautiful, still beautiful, her hair an explosion of dark curls, her lipstick bright pink, and in short “typically”Italian. (“If only one could put one’s wife in a monumental book.”) Quite a woman, one would say, yet for all the wealth of description Mara never comes fully alive; no one is allowed much life of their own in the giant shadow of Chris Burton: that is in the nature of the “case.” Other people are adjuncts, objects of speculation, suspicion, complaint, scorn, uneasy love, or a mixture of these.

One of Burton’s reiterated grudges against Mara, a relatively comical one, concerns the time when in the course of their lovemaking, a rare event, the house-phone rang and she broke off to admit a young Jehovah’s Witness and actually flirted with him. But an Italian Jehovah’s Witness, he asks himself later, I testimoni di Geova? That’s not characteristically Italian; he had imagined that only the English and the Americans could be so stupid in that particular way. (Aseed of doubt is just possibly sown in his mind.) Then there is Gregory Marks, BBC correspondent of long standing, and Burton’s friend and great (not exactly great) rival, who has just published a book called Italian Traits, which Burton, strangely ignorant of the project, is alarmed to spot in an airport bookshop. Has Gregory beaten him to it? Gregory of all people? But he is soon reassured. “The most marvellous thing about the Italians,” Gregory had written, “is their unerring unpredictability”: Burton bursts out laughing. “He had actually brought those two words together: unerring unpredictability.” Gregory was never a serious threat. Not even when he made up to Mara, corresponded romantically with her in French, and claimed they were in love with each other. Mere word games. (Or could it be there was more to it than that?) Mara flirted with him, but she flirted with everybody, even with a Jehovah’s Witness, even with her own son. Gregory Marks is no more than a minor irritant.

Burton has been evading income tax, but no doubt will contrive to get himself forgiven, or “healed” as the Italians say. Halfway through the novel he chides himself for a graver evasion. “When you are most needed you walk away.” Rather than face the enigmas of his wife and his son—so he tells himself, though is he listening?—he has gone “sideways, crabwise,” into more and more analogies and reflections, into adultery (pleasant, but not really serious), and into “an obscure and ridiculous project,” the writing of a monumental study of national character and the predictability of human behavior. (“Though I do believe such a book could prove a milestone.”)

What did he and his wife do to Marco? Reviewing two books by Jay Neugeboren in these pages,* Tim Parks outlined conflicting theories of the etiology of schizophrenia: either organic or relationship-based (connected with family, for example), and hence the differing treatments indicated, drugs or counseling, psychopharmacology or psychotherapy. At one point in the novel, Chris Burton consoles himself thus: “The literature also makes clear that it is an entirely chemical alteration. A virus mutation operating on the enzymes. You’ve been ill, kid.” No one can be held responsible for chemical alterations, the cure for which must lie in other chemicals, as prescribed by the psychiatrist who announced, “Throw away your Sigmund Freud, Mrs.Neugeboren… because I am going to cure your son!” Judging by Parks’s account, Mrs. Neugeboren shares some traits with Mara Burton, and the behavior of Robert Neugeboren, the patient, has some similarity with Marco’s: darling Robert suddenly refuses to eat food cooked by his mother, and darling Marco suddenly refuses to speak to his mother in Italian, and addresses her in English, a language she has never learned, or at any rate declines to use.

If Marco is schizophrenic, Burton is phrenetic. “How difficult it is to be clear about anything, I remark, in a mind that never stays still.” As we see it during the novel’s short time span and in the flashbacks, his mind is in continuous overdrive, forever changing tack, never losing emotional intensity, darting from one idea, grievance, or suspicion to another, and back again. He lives on the further edge of sanity, and at times it might seem that only his sporadic concern with his bowels and bladder, where no moral mystery is present, helps to keep him from toppling over the edge. All of this is conveyed with peculiar intimacy and compelling power, and inevitably the burden on the reader is considerable. In the Neugeboren review, Parks quotes a doctor advising Jay, “Stop being so concerned about your brother. You should get on with your own life.” Readers may believe that books, including novels, are properly a part of their own lives, and yet feel tempted to follow the doctor’s advice.

Burton’s movements of mind undoubtedly have their point, cogency, and interest. Over a cappuccino and brioche in the Pasticceria Dante, he reflects on the message of the Purgatorio: that history is hell and one should withdraw from it and set out on the pilgrimage to perfection. “Journalism is the endless description of hell.” All the same, Dante’s Inferno is by common consent superior to his Purgatorio and Paradiso, which suggests that “perhaps only hell is worth describing.” Such moments, along with Burton’s often germane and moving citations of Manzoni, Montale, Foscolo, and Leopardi (All’apparir del vero: una tomba…the thought of Marco lying in his grave brings to mind Leopardi’s line: “At the dawning of the truth: a tomb”), testify to what could be a first-class mind somewhat overthrown, and one thinks of Ophelia on Hamlet’s “noble and most sovereign reason./ Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh.” Though whether in Burton’s case the bells were ever notably sweet is a matter of doubt.

His animadversions on predictability can sound insufferable. Anyone engaged on a monumental book about the predictability of human behavior “should rejoice in the fact that in Italy at the present time one can be ninety-nine-per-cent sure that two black girls walking the corridors of a night-train are prostitutes,” and “what happens between a man and a prostitute is among the most predictable of all human exchanges.” An alert reader will gather later, and appreciatively as he is surely meant to, that in fact the girls may have saved Burton’s life by “unpredictably” bringing the plight of his innards to the notice of the train conductor.

The protagonist of Parks’s Tongues of Flame (1985), a lucid account of deluded persons, is a boy whose normal anxieties over sex and family matters are exacerbated by his involvement in a ghastly charismatic movement. No doubt his adolescent agonizings are not to be compared with Burton’s multiform sufferings, but in their way they are real enough, and unfolded with an engaging touch of comedy. Ricky was so afraid of sinning in his mind when he went to bed at night that he always made himself imagine that he had married his girlfriend before allowing himself to imagine he was even kissing her. “I used to imagine the whole marriage service almost word for word before I would think of her breasts in the bra you could see through the wet-look blouse.” Ricky is easy to like; you respect Burton’s intelligence and energy, but it is hard to warm to him. Incidentally, Tongues of Flame, with its cultic nastinesses, grotesque speaking in tongues, and a sadistic casting out of Satan, was greeted as “hilarious,” and now the publishers assure us that Destiny is “often hilariously funny.” The word “hilarious” appears to have changed its meaning of late.

True, there are occasional jokes, as when the lame undertaker attending to Marco’s body prompts the thought that “an undertaker limps because he has one foot in the grave”: the kind of black humor acceptably unpredictable given the melancholy circumstances. Then there is a sustained passage of bizarre comedy, when Burton learns that Doctor Vanoli, “Italy’s foremost psychiatrist” and adviser to the family, is planning to leave his wife for a young and beautiful girl. Burton calls on the doctor, indignantly intent on dissuading him from such folly. To begin with, the girl isn’t all that attractive, rather ordinary compared with Burton’s former mistress, Karen (“very beautiful in a black kind of way”), whereas Vanoli’s wife has a noble face, “albeit scored by age and tears.” Burton scolds the doctor: Vanoli should never have told his wife about the girl; he could have enjoyed his mistress and she him without destroying his wife. “I have learned enough from Italians to know that.” To think of Vanoli making the very mistake that he, Burton, didn’t! “Your wife is your destiny, I tell him.” Vanoli goes on looking smug. A little later, Burton wakes up; it was a dream.

The dream peters out phantasmagorically as Burton finds himself addressing an audience of doctors—in Italian, he supposes, until realizing he is speaking in English—on the subject of national character and language. “The momentum of national character is in the language…. Languages talk to themselves…. To explain Italian in English, for example, is always to have an English explanation.” You can often track Parks in his own snow, and the subject is explored more thoroughly in an essay of his, “Perils of Translation,” printed in The New York Review of January 20 this year. He says there,

The rare bilingual person, the person most thoroughly grounded in two distinct conventions, is the person most likely to be struck by the utter difference of the same text in his two languages, because more keenly aware of the distinct value structures implied by the languages and the subversive force of whatever differences from convention are there established.

Atranslation conveys bare facts and the primitive aspects of plot, but cannot reproduce the underlying ethos, assumptions, or (in the widest sense of the term) culture of the other language. (Italian, for instance, is “drenched in Catholic morality.”) The nature of the English language, its innate associations and distinctive coloring, means that where you need an Italian explanation, you get only an English one. We may ask ourselves, though, whether these innate, taken-for-granted postulates are so immovably powerful, nonpareil, and consistent. And we may wonder if the problem as Parks adduces it isn’t more theoretical than real. Reading translations, we tend to adjust instinctively to guessed-at social and psychological differences, we “make allowances”; English isn’t drenched in Catholic morality, but we have our Catholics and our Catholic writers. Parks’s argument provokes thought, and is to some extent undeniably true; we cannot well quarrel with his “growing conviction that a very great deal of literature, poetry and prose, can only be truly exciting and efficacious in its original language.” But it doesn’t amount to a serious blow to literary translation, imperfect though that art may be. We are not hopelessly entrapped in our native tongue or mores; we draw knowledge and understanding of foreign parts and peoples if not from direct experience then by way of that mysterious and marvelous faculty called imagination.

Can we rightly speak of Burton’s “imagination”? Some other word is called for, perhaps “fancy” in the sense Coleridge gave it in his famous attempt, in Biographia Literaria, to differentiate between the two faculties: the imagination is vital, reconciling, and unifying, whereas the fancy, more willed or chosen, “is indeed no other than a mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and space.” Parks is adept at tightening the screw, and the fifteen minutes Burton spends in the camera ardente, the chapel of rest, with its candles and crucifix, where his son’s body lies, seem more like fifteen hours. He cogitates fragmentedly on his guilt (he had always been content to be left in the dark about family affairs) and his guiltlessness (Marco was ill, that’s all, a virus); he speculates briefly on the uncertain relationship between Marco and Paola; telling himself how uncannily calm and lucid he feels, he rehearses the old obsessions, with his wife’s “seduction” of Marco (she breast-fed him for three years), her shadowy association with Gregory Marks, and the way you know things in Italian that you’ll never know in English and how you become things in English that you will never become in Italian.

A similar situation arises in Parks’s previous novel, Europa (1997), which also features a more simply dysfunctional marriage and a manic flood of consciousness. In a striking passage of cool satire, Jerry Marlow, a teacher of English whose colleague has just killed himself, sits in the Meditation Room of the European Parliament in Strasbourg: a pseudo-chapel designed to avoid specific reference to Christianity or any other religion, spirituality detached from doctrine and rites, windowless, furnished with a blue carpet, cushioned benches, and a neon-lit plexiglass mural resembling “some kind of bacterium enormously enlarged beneath a microscope.” Everything is so determinedly neutral and noncommital that the most vivid presence is that of the absent crucifix. As it happens, Jerry Marlow is himself a victim of national stereotyping; his French ex-girlfriend has informed him that his terrible problem lies in his mulish Anglo-Saxon Protestant absolutism. As Burton has put it, “The lucid Anglo-Saxon is ever seduced by Latin enigma.”

Marking the opposite extremes of our aspirations, airports and hospitals are the same the world over. “No difference between England and Italy here, I thought.” As he is driven from the Rome airport to his interview with Andreotti, an appointment that has survived the loss of a son and perhaps of a wife, not to mention inoperative bowels and occluded bladder, Burton is struck by the city’s ubiquitous tombs, cenotaphs, and ruins. “There is a kind of madness in monumentality, I told myself…. Who thought them great now? The emperors and popes. Who cared? All’inferno, cazzo!” The connection is soon explicit: “It was madness to think of writing a monumental book, I told myself…. The very idea of monumentality is infantile, is illusion cherished beyond the age of reason.” And then, “Only what is dead is predictable.”

The sequence of repudiations or renunciations seems to bode well. The novel’s conclusion, like its beginning, has a relative clarity about it, a growing measure of self-possession. “What constantly startles me, I tell myself, is how I can be so reasonable and so mad at the same time.” That Burton should show such awareness of his condition—a rational-seeming derangement of mind, a hectic habit of ratiocination divorced from any secure grip on reality—suggests he is on the path to recovery, albeit backsliding is always on the cards. Take away his sickness, his singularity, and what will remain of Burton? Calm of mind, all passion spent? We cannot tell, perhaps it’s no further business of ours. Yet, having journeyed with him through this turmoil of spirit, we wish him well—and Mara, too.

Mara had left a message for him with Andreotti’s secretary, a few words of love (English words!), and he breaks into her family house, “the house of ghosts,” where she has taken refuge, not knowing whether he will find her dead or alive. There are no lights anywhere, only candles burning: another camera ardente. She has killed herself, he thinks, because he didn’t come to her at once; he had spent the afternoon interviewing politicians, consulting urologists, calling ex-girlfriends. (Actually only one of each.) But she is alive. As for the candles, they were necessary because the electricity had been disconnected. “Perhaps they always cut off tax evaders,” she remarks. (A fine touch: so much for Mara’s alleged theatricality.) He tells her that he loves her. “I don’t wish her dead at all. Inever wished her dead. Did I?” (Did he?) They plan their future. Tomorrow they will move out of the house of ghosts, and, she says, he must get on with his work. “Tomorrow we can begin to mourn our son,”Burton reflects. Not so banal an ending as it sounds, since Marco has now become their son. And what’s amiss with banality, so long as it’s not entirely predictable?

  1. *

    Imagining Robert: My Brother, Madness, and Survival (Owl Books, 1998) and Transforming Madness (Morrow, 1999); see Tim Parks’s “In The Locked Ward,” The New York Review, February 24, 2000.

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