Books: A man in constant search of distraction

Destiny by Tim Parks Secker pounds 15.99
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The Independent Culture
Tim Parks's last novel, Europa, was shortlisted for the 1997 Booker Prize. In it, Englishman Jerry Marlow describes his torment at the hands of his chaotic Italian family, and his futile attempts to wrest some glory from his professional life. Parks's latest novel immerses its narrator in a similar dilemma. Chris is a distinguished journalist and political commentator on his country of adoption. He betrays the same misanthropic cynicism as his fictional predecessor. But what marks Tim Parks out as more than the sum of his narrators is his exceptional finesse at relating their bouts of self-doubt and attempts at reconciliation to a wider philosophical overview.

Destiny opens as Chris takes a call in the foyer of a London hotel informing him that Marco, his institutionalised, schizophrenic son, has committed suicide. He is immediately struck with the thought that his 30-year marriage to the vain and vulgar Mara is over. He spends the rest of the novel wondering why. We learn of their infidelities; of their adoption of an abandoned baby girl who, once Marco is born is neglected; of his wife's ability to "move heaven and earth" to get what she wants, but once she gets it, her theatricality undermines the sincerity of her feelings. Thus Chris's story can be seen as a quest for the origins of Marco's tragedy.

Along the way, he is revealed as a man in constant search of distraction. Even at the moment he takes that phone call, he is delighting in the hotel receptionist's "creamy skin" and regretting the kippers he had for breakfast. His is a busy, fertile mind; and Parks fashions a neurotically restless narrative that harps on three things at once - the state of Chris's recently bypassed heart, his impending interview with Andreotti and the awful history of Marco's short life. Chris's main preoccupation, before his son's death, had been a magnum opus on racial characteristics and their influence on individual destiny. This gives Chris a chance to pronounce on the dissimilarities of Italy and England, and, in parenthesis, on his own lack of national identity. He cannot feel at home either at the dinner parties to which his English colleagues invite him or in his wife's ancient family house in Rome.

This sense of not belonging is compounded by Marco's violent suicide which dramatically challenges his theories on character and fate. It does not take him long to realise that "it must have been about the time that I ... began to seek my pleasure inside my head ... that my son's head went to pieces." Parks shrewdly sets Chris up so that the reader becomes aware that his endless circumlocution is, at best, an intricate web of obfuscating self-involvement. Just as Marco has lost his reason, Chris is overwhelmed by his. Analogies bombard him; ideas are sown with frantic rapidity. They are his escape route.

At one point, Chris recalls reading a psychiatry textbook to try to understand his son's irrational behaviour. The author had postulated that some schizophrenics settle into a chronic state after four or five years "because any approach to sanity, at this point, merely makes the patient aware of how much he has lost". Did Marco kill himself then, Chris asks, because "the reality of irretrievable loss" was so frightening as to be unbearable? Ironically, he is only capable of making an analagous return to sanity at the end of the book, when Parks leaves him reunited with his wife in their home, having reached the state of mind that will finally allow him to mourn his son's death.

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