Europaby Tim Parks
A finalist for the Booker Prize, this ferociously comic tale of love gone sour is the finest novel to date from the author of the national bestsellers, An Italian Education and Italian Neighbors.
His three-day descent into a heart of darknessa 12-hour coach trip, two nights in bars and hotels, the presentation itself, and the aftermathis presented from the claustrophobic perspective of Jerry’s mind, where his obsession has returned full-force: “Here on the big backseat of this big ugly modern coach crossing Europe. . . I’m thinking of her again, as if a great divide had slid down between myself and the others, some invisible screen with enormous and surely marketable capacities for insulation, or as in a dream where one is shouting screaming clawing unheard unseen only inches from people behaving politely at mundane cocktail parties.”
Unrequited love can be as ridiculous as it is sad, and Jerry’s comedy, authentically tragic, is equally divine.
- Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.66(d)
Read an Excerpt
I am sitting slightly off-centre on the long back seat of a modern coach crossing Europe. And this in itself is extraordinary. For I hate coaches, I have always hated coaches, and above all I hate modern coaches, not just because of the strong and nauseating smell of plastics and synthetic upholstery, but because of the way the supposed desires of the majority are now foisted upon everybody -- I mean myself -- in the form of videoscreens projecting from beneath the luggage rack every six seats or so, and of course piped music oozing from concealed loudspeakers. So that even as we pull out of Piazza dell'Universita into the morning traffic on Corso Vercelli in this strange city I have lived in for so long of stone and trams and noble facades and Moroccans selling boxes of contraband cigarettes laid out on the pavements under propped-up umbrellas -- because it's raining, as it will in Milan in May -- even now, before the long trip has hardly started, we are having to listen to a smug male voice singing with fake and complacent hoarseness about un amore passionale, which he cannot, he claims, forget, and which has destroyed his life forever, a theme, I suspect, that may be the very last thing one needs to be subjected to at only shortly after eight on a Monday morning, and not long after one's forty-fifth birthday. Though many of the younger travellers are singing along (the way fresh recruits, I believe, will sing along on their way to war).
Yes, that it was a mistake, I reflect, sitting slightly right of centre on the long back seat of this modern coach setting out across Europe, that it was a big mistake to have come on this trip, I have never doubted from the moment I agreed to it, and perhaps even before, if such a thing is possible. Or let's say that the very instant I took this decision was also the instant I recognized, and recognized that I had always recognized, that coming on this trip was one of those mistakes I was made to make. You were made to make this mistake, I thought. By which I don't mean of course to put it on a par with the grander and more spectacular mistakes that have given shape and structure to what one can only refer to as one's life, just that, upon having agreed, in answer to a request from a colleague, to sign my name at the bottom of a list of other signatures of other colleagues, I immediately appreciated that this was precisely the kind of squalid, absurd and wilful mistake that somebody like myself would make. This is the kind of thing you do, I told myself. You agree to travel for twelve hours on a coach in one direction and then, two days later, for twelve hours on the same coach (a modern coach to boot, with piped music and videos and synthetic smell) in the return direction, in order to lend your name, for the very little it is worth, to a cause which not only do you not support, but which from a purely intellectual point of view, if such a miracle exists, you oppose, you oppose it, and this, what's more, through an appeal to an institution which again not only do you not support, nor subscribe to in any way, but which you frequently feel perhaps should not exist at all. This is the kind of person you are. And trying to find a comfortable position for my head on a brushed nylon headrest at the back of this big coach presently jammed at a crossing despite the green light, I reflect once again that when, and this would have been early April, Vikram Griffiths said to me, clearing his throat and rubbing his fingers across a polished Indian baldness, as he will, or in his sideburns, or in the down of hair behind his thick neck, and then adjusting his spectacles, as he is doing at this very moment some way up the central corridor of this hideous modern coach, leaning stockily, dog nipping his ankles, over the shoulders and doubtless breasts of a young girl, gestures one presumes he makes out of nervousness and a desire to give people the impression that what he is saying is important and exciting -- a dramatized nervousness is perhaps what I mean, a nervousness become conscious of itself and then tool of itself in a never-ending and self-consuming but always coercive narcissism -- when Vikram Griffiths said to me, swallowing catarrh, though without his dog that day, Jerry, boyo -- because Vikram is not just an Indian but a Welsh Indian, the only Indian ever to speak Welsh, he claims -- Jerry, boyo, we are going to appeal to Europe -- clearing his throat again -- and we would much appreciate your support, what I should have done, of course, was to laugh in his face, or produce some more polite gesture but of similar subtext, as for example enquiring, Europe? or just, Where, sorry? as though genuinely unaware that such an entity existed.
I should have refused. It surely would not have been impossible even for a man who is known to be living alone and enjoying a life of very few professional commitments to have found some kind of excuse relative to one of the three designated days when this particular modern coach was to be speeding up interminable kilometres of autostrada and autoroute to present our case to Europe. It should not have been impossible. Yet not only did I not refuse, but I actually leapt at the chance. I said yes immediately. Not only did I not look for an excuse to avoid this tiresome and I suspect hypocritical pilgrimage, but I actually overlooked the perfectly good excuse that did present itself, to wit my daughter's eighteenth birthday, the party to celebrate which will take place tomorrow in my no doubt much-censured absence. And not only, I reflect, as the coach's big engine vibrates beneath my seat -- and what I'm trying to do I suppose is to grasp the nettle, all the nettles, just as firmly as ever one can -- not only did I accept immediately, by which I mean without a second's mental mediation, on reflex as it were, but I then went out of my way to make my acceptance affable and even friendly. I said, Why surely, Vikram, of course I'll come, and I signed my name immediately and immediately, without mediation, I reached into my pocket to pull out the new wallet I had recently bought, as I have bought so many new things of the small and vaguely intimate variety of late, and paid immediately (which was quite unnecessary) the two hundred and twenty thousand lire the trip is costing, a sum which frankly, given the present state of my finances, I can ill afford. You can ill afford it, I told myself. Though I must say that money for me of late has been taking on the feel of a currency one is eager to be rid of before moving on to some other country, a currency, that is, that will not be current for much longer, and which it does not even occur to me might be exchangeable.
I paid my money to this Vikram of the dark skin, deep Indian voice and incongruously Welsh accent immediately and in order then to explain a readiness which I feared would not be understood (since when have you ever shown any inclination to fight for the cause?), I actually went so far as to say that since others were making the very considerable effort to organize this trip on everybody's behalf, the least somebody like myself could do was to show solidarity and come along. I could read a book, I said, during the long journey, I had a lot to read for work, for prospective work, or I could just think (just!). And standing there in the spare because institutional room where our encounter took place, amongst graceless office furniture on a stone-patterned linoleum floor indifferently cleaned by a pampered and unmotivated menial staff, standing there talking to this man whose fecklessness rivals even my own, whose only stable relationship appears to be his passion for the mongrel dog whose hairs smother all his shabby clothes, I was trying to reassure him that there was nothing peculiar in my so rapidly subscribing to his courageous initiative, that there was nothing peculiar in my eagerly adding my name to his list of scrawled signatures. I was almost apologizing, for God's sake, for enrolling in his expedition. Or rather, I was already concealing what I already knew in my heart to be the real and only reason for my behaving in this extraordinary and inconsistent fashion, for my agreeing, that is, to come on this ridiculous and pointless trip; the same reason, it should be said, why I have now, even as I sit here churning these thoughts on the back seat of this coach as it inches its way out to one of those nodal points where the motorway system plugs into the city so that one can be sucked off at tremendous speed to some other and in every way similar city -- the same reason why I have now suddenly buried my face in a book the words on whose pages I not only do not see but do not even really want to see. For she has just stood up to get down her dark leather document-case from the overhead luggage rack. She is in the third seat from the front on the left.
And to think, to think that for more than six months now, or is it a year? I had been speaking of myself (to myself) as a man healed, as a man emerging once and for all from the throes and miseries, and I suppose it has to be added ecstasies, of what I can only refer to as the great crisis, the great adventure, the great collision of my life. Yes, I had begun to look upon myself as that person who has been through it all and emerges the other side `a happier and a wiser man', who glances back at others crossing life's rapids with a sort of affectionate and satisfying irony. And chattering to myself in my mind, as one does, or buying furniture for my little flat, or purchasing all those little things -- my new wallet -- that I suddenly felt it sensible to replace, so that life could start anew, free from every encumbering reminder, I would tell myself: Splendid, not even a whiff of albatross, not a hint of that weight and stench you have carried around with you for so long! Yes, the road to excess, I would quote to myself, and I remember doing this with a cheerful complacence that it is embarrassing to recall, the road to excess -- perhaps I would be putting on a CD of Handel or of Mozart (I had been keeping very strict control on my listening material) -- truly does lead to the Palace of Wisdom. Though one might have quibbled over the word `palace', I suppose. But even if designations along the lines of `service flat' or `hovel' or even `bunker' would perhaps be more appropriate for the species of wisdom I had arrived at, the point I'm trying to make is that prior to meeting Vikram Griffiths, our Indian Welshman, in the English Institute staffroom that day, I had felt I was cured. No, better still, I felt I had cured myself. There was pride involved. For at no point had I sought help from anyone, had I? No, I had fought my own way out of the flood, born up by the scraps of reason and self-respect one inevitably clutches at once it becomes clear one has no stomach for the darker option. And if, after what seemed a very long time at sea, the surf had set me down at the last in a place that was far away from where I plunged in and quite unknown to me and above all lonelier than any other place I had ever been before, all the same it did give me every impression once I got there, once I closed the door on my tiny apartment, of being terra firma, of being, that is, a place of arrival, the kind of place to which the words `home and dry', or at least `dry', might be applicable.
Yes, for six months, I reflect, sitting slightly right of centre on the big back seat of this powerful modern coach setting out across Europe, for six months you have been telling yourself that you are out of the woods, safe, even happy. Not to the point of clapping your hands and stamping your feet, perhaps, but happy enough, happy enough. Until a man for whom you have no particular respect approaches you in your loathsome place of work, an occasional drinking companion, affectedly shabby, determinedly Indian, though brought up entirely Welsh, with a clipboard and a pen in his hand and a nervous over-excited coercive manner manifested above all by his constant throat-clearing and catarrh-swallowing, his constant fingering of sideburns and baldness, and this man explains to you an ambitious initiative for saving the very job you have been trying for years to find the courage to leave, a job that is the source perhaps, when looked at from one angle, of all your woes, and what do you do? What do you do? In the space of a very few seconds you forget the resolve, for such it had seemed, of the last six months and you offer, promptly, immediately, without mediation, your -- and these were the very words you used -- personal contribution to the group effort. And then because you have never, but never, shown the slightest interest in the past in saving this miserable but of course well-paid, fatally well-paid job which has kept us all hanging on here in a limbo without future or return, trapped us in a stagnant backwater where the leaves of falling years turn slowly on themselves as they drift and rot, and because you are sure that this man with the handsome sideburns and balding nervousness never for one moment imagined you would lend your support, and in fact only really asked you because you both happened to be in the same room at the same time and he with his clipboard in his hand, you start to make all kinds of affable apologies of the variety, If others are doing so much, the least I could do, etc. and even explaining to him that you won't really be wasting the time because you can take books to read. I have plenty of work I can take, you said in a ludicrous pretence of having pressing outside interests, and Vikram Griffiths said: Oh, no need to worry about entertainment, boyo -- because Vikram, who has no official role in the foreign teachers' union, yet appears to be the only person who is capable of getting anything done, has this way of calling all males of whatever age `boyo', as indeed he has of calling all females of whatever age `girlie', which is part and parcel of declaring his Welshness, his incongruous Welshness, which of course draws attention to his Indianness, his un-Welshness, and also his matey, alcohol-fed nervousness and above all his alternativeness, his belonging to that revolution permanente, as the French like to say, or used to, that army of special and enlightened people, who are now so much an accepted and uninspiring part of our shadow establishment -- No need to worry about entertainment, boyo, Vikram Griffiths says, clearing his throat and rubbing his hands together, because almost all the students coming along will be girlies, of course. At which point this man, no doubt delighted to have found such an unlikely supporter for his imaginative initiative, gives you the kind of wink which is also a leer, the kind of facial contortion, I mean, that a stand-up comedian might wish to cultivate so that not a single member of a huge theatre audience could misunderstand his insinuation. Because part of Vikram Griffiths' manner, I reflect, is to assume, ostentatiously, provocatively, a renegade complicity even with people whom he suspects may be on the other side. In fact, he said, his face still untwisting from its leer, the boys are already calling it The Shag Wagon, and he laughed a throaty, smoke-and-whisky laugh, and sucking in catarrh repeated, The Shag Wagon, still laughing, and then was giving me some statistics on what he expected to be the breakdown between the students, mostly girls and numerous, and the foreign teachers, ourselves, mostly men and few, and true to the totally inconsistent and I think I ought to recognize shameful way I was behaving, I am behaving, I laughed too. The Shag Wagon! I shouted with a quite unforgiveable mirth. The fucking Shag Wagon, who thought of calling it that? It's brilliant! And Vikram said, Georg thought of it. You know what Georg's like.
Which I did. I do.
And he picked up his list, which already had her name and Georg's name signed on it, and, smelling of dog, dog hairs on his shabby jacket, though he can hardly bring the creature into the University, he went across the room to talk to another of my colleagues, while what I was immediately trying to remember was whether their names, hers and Georg's, had been one above the other or one below the other on that list I had just signed and whether they had been written in the same colour and hence perhaps the same pen. And I couldn't remember. As even now, sitting on the back seat of this modern coach setting out towards the putative heart of Europe and forcing my mind's eye to open once again on the moment when I saw that list on his clipboard, the moment I so precipitously and it has to be said pathetically added my name to it, even now I cannot recall whether their names were together, or far apart, and not remembering, but trying so hard to remember, I am obliged for it must be the millionth time to acknowledge how humiliating it is to be throwing all my mental energy at a matter which is of absolutely no importance, and not even pleasurable in the way that so many other matters of absolutely no importance but to which one regularly gives one's mind, as for example billiards, or TV documentaries, or even, though more rarely, one's work, can be, if nothing else, at least pleasurable. Why does a man feel he has to take his dog with him everywhere? I ask myself. Why does a man have to put himself so much in evidence? An ugly dog at that. And how could it possibly matter whether she and Georg signed the Strasbourg list with the same pen and hence were perhaps together at the moment of signing? How could such a trivial coincidence signify anything at all?
But now I am interrupted by an Italian voice that asks: What are you reading?
For it has to be said that I am very far from being alone on the back seat of this coach. Indeed, if one could be alone, or even hope to be alone, hope that other people would leave one alone, in a modern coach then I would not hate them quite so much, since perhaps what I hate most about coaches is that they imply groups, and one's forced or presumed participation in a group for a given period of time, in the way that, for example, buses or trains or even aeroplanes do not imply such scenarios, since in those cases everybody buys their tickets separately and separately minds their own separate business. Yes, coaches, I understand now, make me think of groups and the tendency groups have to operate at the level of the lowest, and perhaps not even common, denominator, and what I'm thinking of I suppose is parties of people singing together all in the same state of mind, a church outing perhaps, or old people embarking on package tours to pass the time, or adolescents on the way to support a football team, and, in general, I'm thinking of all the contemporary pieties of getting people together and moving them off in one direction or another to have fun together, or to edify themselves, or to show solidarity to some underprivileged minority and everybody, as I said, being of the same mind and of one intent, every individual possessed by the spirit of the group, which is the very spirit apparently of humanity, and indeed of that Europe, come to think of it, to which this group is now hurtling off to appeal. Whereas if I recall correctly, and it was from a book she once made me read or rather re-read, for she was always making me read books in the hope that I might recover my vocation, might truly become that person, that man (this was important), I had once shown promise of becoming -- if I recall correctly, then the first mention of Europe as a geographical entity (was it Theocritus?) referred only to the Peloponnese, and only in order to distinguish the Peloponnese from Asia, only to demonstrate that the small peninsula had not been swallowed up into the amorphous mass of an ever-invasive Asia. Or so I recall, rightly, or perhaps wrongly, from a book she made me read, re-read, in her insistent and one must suppose laudable attempt to have me recover my vocation, to have me become, perhaps this was the nub, somebody she could respect. It was a claim to distinction, Europe, as I recall.
In any event, I am far from alone, here on the back seat, which is to say that on my right, trapped between myself and the window, I have a rather plain young woman with somehow swollen lips who has been chattering intermittently with the two girls in the seat in front of us and, ignoring myself, with the girl, over made-up, to my left, who is dead in the centre of the coach's, one has to confess, comfortable big back seat, while to her left sits the handsome Georg, a German of Polish extraction, who is exchanging occasional pleasantries with the girl to his left, trapped between himself and the window, and again with the boy and girl in the seat in front of them, one of whom, the girl, is standing up with one knee on her seat and one very long and attractive leg out in the corridor, holding forth absolutely non-stop, in Italian, as is to be expected of a young Italian, on a variety of entirely predictable topics, as for example, the quality of different makes of jeans, including the pair she has on (allowing Georg to examine her leg and plump crotch attentively); the impossibility of finding a place in one of the smaller university classrooms when somebody `important' (not myself) is lecturing; the credibility of astrology and numerology; the `stupendous' sound system in a new discotheque recently opened in the small satellite town of Busto Arsizio; and the extraordinary behaviour, in love and out, of her cousin Paola, who studies law at the Cattolica and who, on being left by her boy-friend of long standing, got a friend to phone him in the middle of the night as though from a hospital to say that a girl with red hair (i.e. herself) had been found in a coma after a horrendous car crash, the only piece of identification found on her being a photo of a young man with a phone-number on the back, the boy-friend's -- all this to make him feel sorry for her and guilty about leaving her and to have him rush off to hospital imagining he would find her dying, whereas in fact what he, the ex-boy-friend, did was to call her parents, who, and particularly the mother, went almost out of their minds with grief before Paola came in through the front door in an advanced state of drunkenness.
How adolescent that is, I reflect, watching the girl's animated face. And how attractive. You have always had a fatal attraction to adolescent behaviour, I tell myself. Most of your own behaviour, I tell myself, is irretrievably adolescent. And in the meantime this stream, indeed this torrent of juvenile and absolutely indiscriminating, but at least unpretentious chatter has, for the half an hour or so that we have been forcing our way through Milan's cluttered thoroughfares, together of course with an occasional burst of communal song when a new voice takes over on the airwaves crooning without fail of love whether happy or unhappy -- this chatter and the singing, sometimes choral, of insipid songs, has so far been offering an excellent cover for what I'm perfectly aware will be perceived as my misanthropic behaviour, sitting silent and slightly off-centre in the back seat of this coach, the only place left unoccupied on my late (studiedly late) arrival, my face buried in a book, an attitude which unfortunately legitimizes the innocent question of the girl in the seat in front.
What are you reading?
This girl must be kneeling on her seat, because her arms are resting quite naturally on the top of the backrest above my face and her rather strong chin is just above her linked hands, head cocked to one side in an expression of friendly enquiry and what the Italians call disponibilita, meaning openness, willingness to listen and to help, amenability. And though she is perfectly aware, it seems to me, of this body language, this simple friendliness she is communicating, there could be no question of her having deliberately and carefully adopted it, which is exactly the opposite of so many adults, I reflect, who are often amazingly unaware of what they have indeed been meticulously scheming, as when she, I am bound to remember now, told you that though she loved you dearly she felt she needed a little breathing space on her own before making the kind of decisions that would upset the vie tranquille that she and her young daughter had been enjoying since her painful separation from her husband. And her face as she said this had a wonderful warm poignancy about it, yearning would be an appropriate word, an expression I still remember very clearly, as if gazing at a loved one through prison bars, or in fading twilight, with all the intimacy of a love that cannot be, but an expression that time would all too soon reveal as entirely false and hypocritical, knowing what she knew then, as so many of the expressions, I reflect, that you yourself have adopted with your one-time wife and indeed with all those people who at some time and for whatever reason have become important to you and whom at some point in your life you could not have done without, have been entirely false and hypocritical.
I am not reading, I tell the girl in front of me.
But you have a book.
I insist to the perhaps twenty- or twenty-one-year-old girl that though this is self-evident, the fact is that I am not reading the book which, admittedly, I am holding open in my hands.
Already, during the course of this brief exchange, I am aware of smiling wryly and generally sending out the kind of friendly, apparently avuncular social messages which I know are expected of me. It's as if I had indeed been reading the book, but had now chosen to say that I was not reading it in order to tease and prolong the conversation, rather than just giving the girl the title of the thing and having done. Indeed it would not greatly surprise me if before very long I weren't telling this pleasant young studentessa some small sad half-truths about myself merely in order to appear, as they say, interesting.
I explain to her that I am not reading the novel I hold in my hands, because I already know it to be a tiresome thing written by a woman who can think of nothing better to do with her very considerable talent than prolong a weary dialectic which presents the authorities as always evil and wrong and her magical-realist, lesbian, ethnic-minority self and assorted revolutionary company as always good and right and engaged, what's more, in a heroic battle where LIFE will one day triumph over the evils and violence of an uncomprehending establishment.
Again I smile, warmly, to show that I am perfectly aware that this fierce demolition will seem pompous and presumptuous and even fascist, whereas what I really feel is that my criticism, far from exaggerated, is, if anything, inadequate, since what needs to be said is that people who do nothing more than analyse the world in a way in which it has grown used to being analysed, offering their readers the illusion of participating in a movement that gives them a sense of moral superiority with regard to a society they have no intention of ceasing to subscribe to (as indeed why should they?) -- people, whether writers or not, of this variety deserve nothing better than scorn and perhaps a good deal worse.
But it would be unwise to say this. It would be, I have discovered, and indeed it generally is, unwise to say almost any of the things one feels most moved to say. Unless you can somehow present them as a joke.
So why are you reading it? she asks me.
In a pantomime of patience I explain that, as I have already explained, I am not reading it.
But you've got it open.
It was given to me.
She looks at me with big young eyes, wondering if she can ask the question, and perhaps because we're on a coach and hence all part of the same group supporting the same cause, my cause, she feels she can. Who by?
I tell her: Somebody who wanted me to read it.
Clearly she is being teased, and clearly she enjoys being teased. She bounces up and down on her knees, she is young, she smiles, she raises an eyebrow (endearingly bushy), she cocks her head to one side, smooth cheek for just a moment against the synthetic stiff blood-red of the upholstery. Immediately I'm thinking that if I don't tell her who gave me this book, with all that the two words involved would imply, perhaps I'll have more of a chance with this young student, a thought which equally immediately short-circuits to have me thinking, uncomfortably, of Georg and of her, so expert in the withholding of information, so that in the kind of reflex that isn't so much a decision as a small convulsion of self-recognition followed by fearful rejection (as of one throwing away a cigarette after the first puff), I decide I will tell her who gave me this miserable novel. I will tell her so as to save myself from all equivocation. Just as I open my mouth, she asks, Your girl-friend?
Was it your girl-friend gave you the book?
She smiles warmly. She is being bolder now. She has noticed -- I saw her eyes -- that I don't wear a ring. I close my mouth, hesitating again, when our conversation, if such we are to call it, is interrupted by an announcement. Vikram Griffiths is standing in the aisle of the coach up front by the driver and he has a microphone in his hand and his mongrel dog at his feet. His voice is harshly, electronically deep, and deeply Welsh: Welcome to y'all! he begins, benvenuti, bienvenus, wilkommen, croeso, good t'see ya!
Meet the Author
Tim Parks is the author of more than twenty novels and works of nonfiction, including the best-selling Italian Neighbors and An Italian Education. His novels include Europa which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. His essays have appeared in the The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, for which he blogs. Tim Park is also a renowned translator. He lives in Italy.
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