The Parrots by Filippo Bologna
Pushkin Press, hardback,
288 pages, £14.99
Filippo Bologna’s second novel, a satire of the world of literary prizes published by the reliably excellent Pushkin Press, and translated from the Italian by Howard Curtis, has arrived in this country in a timely manner, in the same week the Booker Prize Longlist is announced.
With the list yet to be announced at the time of writing*, it is a little difficult to speculate at length about the authors’ chances. Happily, in The Parrots, Bologna gives us a model with which to compare literary nominees, in the form of his three unnamed main characters: The Beginner, The Writer and The Master. They are all up for the same prize, but standing between them and glory are a number of increasingly absurd obstacles, the most disturbing of which is the titular (talking) bird – a malevolent and ragged tormentor, who serves as a neat metaphor for the anxieties suffered by the three writers.
The Beginner is just that – a debut novelist whose work has achieved instant critical acclaim. His girlfriend is pregnant. He plays five-a-side football and owns a Playstation 3. From the outset, the reader is asked to sympathise with him, although he is guilty of an affair with his translator. “’Fortunately you’re still nobody”’, his wounded partner reminds him. ‘“You haven’t won anything, you haven’t been successful. You’re not famous, even though you already behave as if you are.”’ One can’t help but wonder how much of Bologna’s own experience is invested in The Beginner’s character – he too achieved success in Italy with his debut novel How I Lost the War. A discussion of ‘the only question never to ask a writer: “Are you writing?”’ is written with deliberate confusion as to whom is speaking, Bologna or The Beginner.
The Writer is a novelist at the height of his powers, in the middle of his career, living comfortably with his second wife, his Filipino gardener, his Ukrainian nanny and his fridge full of expensive seafood. His is perhaps the most recognisable stereotype – and yet, The Writer’s big secret (which one feels it would be churlish to reveal here) causes him to feel the act of writing is ‘shameful, unforgivable and irrevocable’. It is this guilt that leads him to take the drastic action on which the result of The Prize rests.
The Master’s character, a poet, is another distinctive and well-selected type: he is respected among his peers, has always stayed with the same small publisher, and has never gained the recognition he feels he deserves. While being diagnosed for prostate cancer, he is preoccupied by a portrait of St. Francis on his urologist’s office wall:
The Master would have liked to read his poems and stories to men and animals, and have them listen admiringly, docile and graceful. Basically, St. Francis’s sermons were readings ante litteram.
Each writer is flanked by a supporting cast who do very little in the way of support. The Beginner has the mysterious black parrot to contend with; The Writer must joust with his insidious literary agent; The Master’s hapless publisher derails his attempts at respectability with chastening regularity. The joke is that without these outside factors, one feels that the writers would be merely ambivalent about the winner of The Prize, suggesting that Bologna’s satire is not necessarily aimed at prizes themselves, but at the desperate figures they are capable of creating. The Prize serves as a magnifier for the writers’ feelings about their respective careers, and they become obsessed with how they are perceived by the outside world – there is one particularly perceptive scene in which The Writer reads the Amazon reviews of his fellow nominees’ novels. He is unexpectedly satisfied by what he reads, but then he turns to his own reviews:
He took his eyes off the screen, hurriedly closing down the browser window and from the scroll-down window chose the Shut down system option. With excessive caution, the system asked him if he was really sure he wanted to shut it down. The Writer had never been so sure in his life. This world didn’t deserve him.
One pervasive idea in The Parrots is that of weight: in describing the academy building where The Prize is due to be awarded, Bologna diverts into a detailed discussion of how many more books can be ‘crammed in’ before the floors of the building collapse entirely, an effective symbol for the weight of history itself, and the constant increase of that weight. Similarly, to stop the black parrot’s taunting, the Beginner bundles it into a sack with some heavy books and drowns it unceremoniously in the Tiber; an unburdening of anxieties, it would seem. The incident seems to pass without bearing too much weight on the narrative, before re-emerging as a key part of a fine and twist-filled epilogue.
Bologna’s fictional arena is deftly constructed, and alive with mischief. The story unfolds in pacy chronological order, at times almost in real time, the three lead characters’ storylines occasionally dovetailing into each other (there is one scene where The Beginner and The Writer are stuck in the same traffic jam, unaware of each other). His exaggerated world is one of extraordinary coincidences made everyday (The Beginner’s affair is rumbled through the perfectly bad timing of a Google Street View photo), and gently surreal moments are introduced with minimal fanfare, enhancing their strangeness. The Master is given the lion’s share of the slapstick moments: his uncertain dabbling in witchcraft results in an excellent set piece in which he breaks into The Writer’s house to steal his shoes, only for his plan to be scuppered by the household dog sniffing out his cancerous prostate. These darkly humorous fragments are where Bologna excels, invoking the same skewed literary universe previously visited by David Lodge and Evelyn Waugh.
There are moments, however, that feel a little superfluous – the interludes describing various species of bird and their flights across Rome, though thoughtful and evocative, only serve as pleasant distractions, and stall the momentum of what is otherwise a tightly plotted yarn; more drive in the narrative would have sharpened both the drama and the humour within.
By the end of The Parrots, all three writers realise exactly how much winning means to them. Reading through Bologna’s witty and energetic novel I found myself grinning at the accuracy of his stereotypes, and even attributing a few names to them from today’s literary world. Which names were they? I couldn’t possibly divulge.
As a bookseller by day, I am regularly exposed to the ‘prize buzz’, in which a book that has languished on the shelf for months becomes a sensation due to its association with a certain prize. Since literary prizes now come along so frequently and at all times of the year, it is often difficult to ascertain where the true quality lies. On balance though, I would rather these prizes around than not – Lord knows, the book world needs all the publicity it can get these days. However, publishing is also a world that is ripe for satire, and Filippo Bologna has succeeded in skewering it perfectly.
The Man Booker Prize Longlist was announced earlier this week.
I can see at least one Master, one Writer and one Beginner. Can you?