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Melting Pot

EUROPA.\o7 By Tim Parks (Arcade: 272 pp., $23)\f7

October 18, 1998|RICHARD EDER

It is Shakespeare's fault; Shakespeare and meat teas. Take John of Gaunt's paean to English exceptionalism: "This precious stone set in the silver sea [and securely moated from Europe] . . . this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England." Take the vast quantities of beef, which, the French used to insist, made English soldiers--les rosbifs--so fearfully ferocious.

Tim Parks, a British novelist who lives in Italy, has created a supremely moated, brooding and occasionally violent Englishman who implodes in the new Europe. Jeremy Marlow is a buffoon: absurd, incorrect (not just incorrect but plain repellent), self-destructive--and yet. And yet Parks, who treats his protagonist without indulgence, uses him for some suggestively dark thoughts about the tuning out of individual and national dissonances in the bland harmonies of the new Europe.

Near the climax of Marlow's anguish--nicely set on a tour bus bound for Strasbourg, where he and fellow teachers of assorted nationalities plan to lodge a job protest at the European Parliament--this failed classics scholar, stuck in a routine academic post, visualizes the reformed continent as a nightmare of Platonic order:

"Thus Europe. Thus our final home. Our permanent job. The end of conflict. The end of poverty. The end of history. The shape of an apple, defined. The ingredients of an ice cream, defined. Pure form. Ultimate solidarity in a world where perfected technique will remove all suffering."

At 45, Marlow had left his patient and devoted wife for a seductive French colleague at the University of Milan, where both hold low-level positions preparing students for their foreign language certificates. Guilt about his family--he has fantasies about his daughter's vulnerability to seducers of both sexes--torments him. He is far more violently tormented by his subsequent rupture with the Frenchwoman, whose airy infidelities induced him to unhinge her jaw with his fist.

Marlow's life is a shambles. It is a symbolic shambles, in part, and Parks is oddly witty in linking it to the alterations and blurrings of national and individual character in an amalgamating Europe. Still, far too much of "Europa" has the protagonist simmering his shambles in a broth of obsessive and repetitious complaint. He hurls in great strings of words; the same strings froth over and over to the simmer's surface. Parks uses wordiness and repetition to suggest Marlow's state of burnt-out despair. It does suggest it, but it swamps the reader.

Shambles and all, Marlow boards the tour bus along with a small cohort of colleagues from different countries, among them the Frenchwoman. Like Marlow, most had seen their ambitions fade and had settled for the security of their modest university jobs. Including them in his own self-loathing, Marlow complains that they are all overpaid and underworked. Yet the new European structures--to Marlow's simultaneous disdain and grateful greed--make it possible for them to petition for a redress of a tenuous grievance: They have fewer benefits than the Italian faculty.

The bus is something of a ship of fools, and Parks lets sparks of satiric wit trickle through his narrator's gloom. A group of Italian students has come along to show solidarity with their teachers--several of whom zero in on the prettier ones. The tour leader has helpfully procured a video of "Dead Poets Society" for the bus; the point, he explains, is to soften up the seduction targets by showing professorial sublimity in the shape of Robin Williams.

The leader is the book's liveliest and most touching character. He is Vikram Griffiths, half Indian and half Welsh--a parodic symbol of Europe's nationality-melting--and an egregious clown, what with his bright red necktie, his ebullient lechery, his bedraggled dog Daffyd, and his habit of addressing the passengers as "boyo" and "girlie." Obnoxious recedes into endearing, as Vikram's own torments are disclosed and linked, like Marlow's, to the moral formlessness of the communitarian Europe. Clown fades into sad and, finally, tragic clown.

The journey, the arrival in Strasbourg, the presenting of the petition to a parliamentary human rights commission--where Vikram has a Welsh connection--are told with a witty sense of the dynamics, the tensions, the claustrophobic undercurrents among near-strangers who find themselves in the confines of a tour bus and a group mission. There are comic misunderstandings and the splendid awkwardness of three dozen people figuring out the bill at the most dismal of collegial dinners.

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