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Sex, politics, and coach travel.

July 21, 2013

Every so often—OK, rarely, but it happens—you come across a book that seems to encapsulate your very understanding of the world, a book that makes you pause every few pages, every few lines, in order to quietly marvel at its prose and ideas and perfect emotional clarity.

Several months ago, I found Tim Parks’s Europa, short-listed for the 1997 Booker Prize, at the wonderful Atavist Books in Brisbane. This second-hand bookshop is tiny, but its selection belies its tardis-like exterior. I finally picked up Europa last week, feeling ever-so-slightly guilty because it’s not a new release (this is what happens to your reading habits when you work in a bookshop) but justifying my decision on the basis of its length: just over 200 pages. As it turned out, it took me a few days to read; much as I wanted to tear through Parks’s compelling stream-of-consciousness narrative, the rush of thoughts and feelings and anxieties that charge along every page demanded my time and concentration—there was too much going on at once and I didn’t want to miss a moment.

Parks’s narrator, Jerry, is a 45-year-old language teacher at an Italian university; he’s also beset by neuroses and self-loathing, the special kind brought on by a doomed love affair with a French colleague. When we meet Jerry, he’s trapped on a coach, and there he remains—agonising, philosophising, mentally self-flagellating, and occasionally flirting with the pretty Italian student sitting nearby—for much of the book’s duration.

But we’re not entirely cut off from the outside world; on the contrary, what makes Europa so powerful and so clever is Parks’s delicate tightrope act between external and internal experience. Jerry’s inner monologue doesn’t just expose us to his anguished internal conflicts, but the bland torture of a coach road trip, with its overpriced service station stops, awkward seating arrangements, poor audio-visual entertainment choices, and ‘nauseating smell of plastics and synthetic upholstery’.

The novel also has an interesting social and political dimension. Jerry, a handful of his colleagues and a few students are on their way to petition the European Parliament about changes to their working conditions. It’s not something Jerry really gives a toss about—he only signed up because he knew his ex-lover would be going, too—and he’s not the only one there under false pretences. ‘When we arrived at the University long ago’, he reflects, ‘each one of us signed a contract in which we accepted that the maximum duration of our job would be five years, because of course we imagined that we would use this time to become something else—a writer, a painter, a mother, a professor, an entrepreneur—but that by the end of those five years, our various private projects having failed, or not having satisfied us as we expected, we couldn’t leave, we could not give up our empty jobs’. There’s no real united front on Jerry’s coach, just as the European Union itself, for all its ‘holier than thou’ politics and aspirations of solidarity and harmony, is as hypocritical and self-serving as any man. Jerry’s recognition of this—his loss of faith and self-belief—also alludes more widely to the emptiness of the modern world, like the coach upholstery’s ‘synthetic red velvet that looks so plush, that promises such luxury, invites such complacence, the way all that is modern promises such luxury, invites such complacence, such sitting back in this world of paved roads and metalled directions, gleaming surfaces, reclinable seats, this world where everything is ready for us, technically, to be happy’.

If there’s one person who isn’t happy, it’s Jerry. He’s tried to fool himself into believing that he chose to take this trip simply to show ‘her’ (she’s not named until the book’s final sentence) that he’s moved on from their relationship, but ‘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’. Jerry’s become the man he never thought he’d be, and it ‘strikes home to me how much I had lost: my role as a father and husband, the obviousness of my old life, the simplicity of being somebody’s husband, somebody’s father, the readiness of an explanation when required, being able to say, This is who I am and what I do’.

Parks has a droll humour that gives the bleakness at the novel’s heart a savagely witty edge; Europa is a deftly balanced tragicomedy. For all his self-obsession, Jerry is observant, both of his fellow man and his environment (the novel’s supporting cast is particularly well realised, from the shambolic Vikram Griffiths, the cravat-wearing, whisky-drinking trip organiser whose shambolic manner belies his political cunning, to she, who stalks the passages of Jerry’s memory even as she sits across the aisle from him on the coach engrossed in Dead Poet’s Society). Standing in a floodlit square outside a cathedral in Strasbourg, Jerry reflects that Europe’s grand monuments have been ‘emptied of their potency precisely by the zeal with which we have focused on them, cared for them, illuminated them, absorbed them into the on-off neon of our intermittent modern night, our world of time-switches and default settings and above all discrete units of measure’. For all its philosophising and references to the classics and the history of Western thought, Europa is also very much grounded in a contemporary world we can recognise, among people we can recognise; and once the convoy arrives in Strasbourg to present their case, the narrative picks up pace and hurdles towards a shocking and satisfying conclusion.

Europa is a mesmerising study of desire, artifice and human nature that manages to be both cynical and beautiful: there’s something universal about Jerry’s angst-ridden journey, which is at once painful, resonant and darkly amusing. Despite its inherent pessimism, Parks’s tale is so rich in ideas and clarity of thought that reading it might even partially restore your faith in humanity.

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