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Euro Paean

Illustration by Paige Imatani

Tim Parks is best known for his two

nonfiction works, Italian Neighbors and An Italian Education, which describe his experiences as an English expat in Italy. He is, however, an excellent novelist. Europa, his ninth novel, was nominated for the Booker Prize in England, but it has received a cooler reception here. Perhaps the book’s frank depiction of jaded middle-aged lust is upsetting people, on the grounds that its would-be libertines are white, male and insufficiently presidential. Perhaps the sentiment is that hypercritical types like the novel’s hero should just take their Zoloft and shut up. Whatever the reason, it’s a pity. If only for his ability to enter imaginatively into other people’s heads — often with hilarious results — Parks deserves a wider audience in the States.

The head Parks enters in Europa belongs to a 45-year-old English-language teacher and failed classics scholar named Jeremiah (Jerry) Marlow. Things are pretty bleak in there. Divorced from his wife and obsessed with his former mistress, Jerry is not a happy camper. As the novel opens he is on a 12-hour bus trip from Milan to Strasbourg, time he uses to ponder the wreckage of his life. After a long period of post-break-up seclusion, being in a crowd of people comes as a shock. "Yes, I am caught now," he reflects 21 pages into the book. "I am not in my small flat where the answering machine vets all the calls . . . not in my own private space so dear to me and so dull." Instead, he is on a big modern tour bus (a "shag wagon," as one of his colleagues leeringly dubs it) filled with young, predominantly female Italian language students and their middle-aged, predominantly male teachers, traveling across the autoroutes and autostradas of the new Europe to protest threatened job cuts before the Petitions Committee of the new European Parliament in Strasbourg.

The teachers — led by Vikram Griffiths, a clowning, oddly charismatic half-Indian, half-Welsh alcoholic minority of one — intend to accuse their employers at the University of Milan of cutting their jobs simply because they’re not Italian. In other words, they intend to depict themselves as the victims of a mild, but nonetheless real, form of ethnic or racial discrimination. The charge will not be made in good faith, however. Essentially, they are demanding that, as "Europeans," they should have the same rights in Italy that Italians do, but in their hearts, they don’t feel like Europeans — let alone Italians — at all. They feel like what they are: English, French, Welsh, German . . . Thus communitarian rhetoric is used to mask private needs.

Jerry has no illusions about this. As far as he’s concerned, the charge of discrimination is nothing more than a ruse for a bunch of coddled teachers, himself included, to disguise the fact that they’re scared of losing jobs they’ve had for much too long anyway. He’s on the bus for entirely different reasons. He’s on the bus because she’s on the bus, "she" being his former mistress and fellow teacher, a Frenchwoman (unnamed until the very end of the novel) who broke up his 15-year marriage, took him to the height of sexual and emotional ecstasy, and then coolly left him there. That was a year and a half ago, and Jerry has been sulking and playing computer games ever since. Now he wants to see if he can stand being around her. In a more masochistic vein, he also wants to revisit the intensity of suffering she caused in him.

Europa isn’t very big on plot or suspense — Will the teachers’ petition be successful? Will Jerry get over his ex? Will he find some sort of meaning in his life? — but it is strong on situation. All of us have known the horror of feeling secretly miserable while forced to play our part in the cheery confabulations of a large, boisterous group, and Parks brings that horror to full, churning life. Jerry does well enough, joking and flirting and feigning interest in the purpose of the trip along with everyone else, but it’s his discomfort that keeps the reader interested. Parks also manages to meld his protagonist’s acute sense of isolation to a big, seemingly contradictory theme: the new European union. For Jerry, everything (marriage, affair, career aspirations, self-respect) has fallen apart, but the Europe he is traveling through is coming together in a triumph of bland homogeneity:

We filed into the Chambersee Service Station, built as was to be expected in the ubiquitous Euro-architecture of curved cement-and-glass surfaces, with a generous bristle of flag-poles outside displaying the colours of every nationality the franchise-holders hope to take money from and inside a sense of disorientation generated by flights of steps and walkways and signs that are no longer in any language but just cups and knives-and-forks and wheelchairs and crossed-out dogs . . .

The multiethnic group inside the bus (a European microcosm) allows Parks to pose questions about the larger world outside. Is "Europe" anything more than a convenient heading under which to list the mutual incomprehension of a group of entirely separate nations? What kind of European union is it, he asks, when Germany’s Bundesbank can send another European currency into free fall (as happens at the start of the novel) by deciding not to lower interest rates? Or when the conversations Jerry had with his mistress, mostly conducted in French, have all been dubbed by his memory into English? Not much of one, would seem to be Parks’ answer. Napoleon, Jerry notes sourly, was "a man who appreciated that the only way to unite Europe was to run backwards and forwards across it with an army."

Jerry Marlow is not exactly a winning character, but his increasingly desperate attempts to get over his ex do give him a measure of heroism. Then there’s the skill with which Parks makes the most of functional settings (bus, prefab hotel, the European Parliament itself) and his usual sharpness in drawing character. Much attention is paid to the sexual shenanigans (some real, most imagined) of the teachers, two of whom refer to anyone they manage to get into bed as "tottie" (psycho-tottie, opera-tottie, Bologna-tottie, etc.); there are also tortured — and very funny — ruminations about marriage, adultery, betrayal, failed career aspirations, self-hatred, Euro-blandness, mass reproductions, bad movies and just about anything else likely to beset the mind of a man going through a full-blown crisis.

The book’s conclusion at the

European Parliament is marred by the sudden intrusion of melodrama, but in other ways it is the most thought-provoking section. Asked to fill in at the last minute for Vikram Griffiths, Jerry gives a speech to the Petitions Committee that is impressive precisely because, like a true politician, he doesn’t believe a word of it. Outrageously, he even manages to link the teachers’ plight to Bosnia while his audience nods sanctimonious approval. ("Thus the drivel the microphone drew from me," Jerry notes wryly at the end, pleased with himself nonetheless.)

In the meantime, Jerry’s search for some kind of meaning in his life now develops in a place where "meanings" of all kinds are nervously avoided. Sitting alone in the "Meditation Room" of the European Parliament, a room that feels like a cha-pel except that any religious symbolism, Christian or otherwise, has been pointedly omitted, Jerry realizes that, in a way, he and the new Europe are a perfect match. After all, he himself would no more go back to the church than he would to his marriage. He believes in nothing except his own bad faith, just as the move toward European union stems from mistrust of the "sovereign" nation and fear of nationalism. Fear of nation, fear of self — what’s the difference?

Viewed from one angle, Jerry is a sham-bling wreck; viewed from another, he’s a clean slate, ready, just as Europe is, to be inscribed by a new millennium. By the end of the novel, as he finally gets over his ex, he’s already dreaming of a new life with a woman he’s just met (Yorkshire-tottie), and is even toying with the idea of applying for a job at the European Parliament. Work conditions are bad, naturally, and there’s no such thing as a permanent contract, but in the new Europe, there may be nowhere else for someone like Jerry Marlow to go.