The Parrots, By Filippo Bologna. Pushkin Press, £14.99


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The Independent Culture

Every week another literary shortlist is announced, a judging panel revealed, a couple of longlists named, with a juicily controversial omission or a tediously predictable inclusion. But if The Parrots is to be believed, none is more significant than The Prize, the loftiest of all literary accolades, for which there are just three men in contention. They are The Beginner, The Writer and The Master. And for each of these men, the outcome really, really matters. In the Italian writer Filippo Bologna's smart new novel, we watch the three finalists in the countdown to the big announcement.

For each finalist, the stakes couldn't be higher. The Master is ageing, ailing, and needs the money. (The Small Publisher gave him an advance of just 800 Euros. It's not, in fact, a very good book.) The Writer doesn't need the money but hungers for the prestige – and he has a secret, brilliantly revealed, that partly explains the need for affirmation. Then there's The Beginner, who has inadvertently acquired a giant black parrot, and whose girlfriend (or rather, Girlfriend) gives him an ultimatum where The Prize is concerned, though it's not what you'd expect. We spy on these men over three months, as their lives occasionally glance against one another's, all with the same end in sight.

The circumstances into which Bologna drops his characters prompts their reminiscences, their reflections; provokes their anxieties, their insecurities, their competitive, machinating egos. All this comes to us in the irresistibly controlling voice of our smooth, knowing narrator (rendered in English by Howard Curtis), shrewd and precise, often comic, with a cool eye for the truth of these characters.

An eye for their failures, especially. The Master, The Writer and The Beginner are all figures somehow in extremis, yet even in the wickedest excesses of this satire a reader will recognise the basic human struggles and doubts at their core. Next time some glamorous shortlist catches your eye, you'll remember the unedifying glimpse The Parrots gave you of how things might perhaps look behind the scenes. It's not a pretty sight at all.