Speaking in Tongues


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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.