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The Parrots (B-Format Hardback) Hardcover – 4 Jul 2013
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This very funny satire about the stuffy little world of literature could be set anywhere... It's a hoot, written with a shrewd eye for the absurdity of certain literary egos (The Times)
A five-star satire on literary vanity ... A wonderful, surprising novel with a rich payload of emotion behind the caricature (Metro)
Very funny ... lucidly translated (Lucy Popescu Huffington Post)
[Bologna's] smart new novel ... [has a] smooth, knowing narrator ... shrewd and precise, often comic, with a cool eye for the truth of these characters (Daniel Hahn Independent)
A satire of Swiftian rancour... the parrots of the title act as apt metaphors for the endless churn of appropriation and pastiche that passes for literary originality... Bologna has a gift, preserved in Howard Curtis's crisp translation, for the comically jolting simile (Nat Segnit TLS)
A scathing satire about the murky world of Italy's prestigious literary awards... Bologna paints a comically grim picture of a culture of back-stabbing and deceit (Financial Times)
Tacks between high literary majesty and good hard slapstick without ever capsizing... scintillating... that rarest of books: a damn decent novel about writers... terrific (Samuel Ashworth Brooklyn Rail)
About the Author
Filippo Bologna was born in Tuscany in 1978. He lives in Rome where he works as a writer and screenwriter. His debut novel How I Lost the War is also published by Pushkin Press.
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Thomson made the problem and the book's take on it sound specifically Italian ("In Italy, more so than in Britain, literary prizes are regarded as something of a vanity; showbiz impresarios, fashion models and industrialists all clamour to attend the awards"). But in fact, I think Thomson is only partly right. The phenomenon under consideration in The Parrots is not primarily literary awards: it is the very possibility of being a writer within a developed industrial capitalist system. In their different ways, each of the protagonists is stymied by the compromises required. There are three authors, and they each represent a different mode of failure, and a different stage in the process: beginning, middle and end.
Incidentally, Bologna's refusal to give names to his characters underlines this. Readers expecting a novel on the US/ UK model will be at a loss. Bologna is not aiming for photographic realism: this is a more of philosophical essay developed as a parable with superficially quirky commentary. The author himself is as much a character in his story as anyone within the narrative. The title of the novel is partly perhaps down to the idea that even the `best' writers have nothing new to say. But things are more complex than that: there is an actual parrot in the novel, a genuinely disturbing creature. Birds, identified by their (loose) colloquial and (precise) Latin names, are a frequent motif. Genuineness, and how genuineness must be ignored or obliterated or both.
But to return to those three protagonists, each a contender for `the Prize', a career-making literary award of national significance. `The Beginner' has written a promising novel, although from what we learn indirectly about it (through readers' comments on the internet, for example), it is an ambiguous achievement, some commentators deploring its eccentric chronology and lack of direction. The Beginner's girlfriend (`The Girlfriend') accuses him of having become vain and self-centred since having achieved success as a writer, and Bologna seems disinclined to argue. His one chance of retrieving some sort of personal authenticity, it eventually becomes explicitly clear, is to deliberately lose the contest for The Prize.
`The Master' is an old man at the end of his career and his life. Right at the beginning of the novel, he is diagnosed with prostate cancer, and comes to see The Prize as his sole remaining hope of retrospectively justifying his artistic life. His big mistake is to have perpetually tried for some sort of authenticity: swimming against the ever-changing tide of literary fashion, sticking with a small publisher out of personal loyalty when a big one would have served him better, writing poetry. His indifference to commercial success has come to seem, in hindsight, a mistake. He is poverty-stricken, ruined and bitter.
`The Writer' is a successful author who does not write his own novels. He enjoys massive worldly success, but not happiness. As the novel wears on, he becomes aware of his own fraudulence to the point where it becomes unbearable.
Bologna continually implies that none of the three has written anything genuinely worth reading. In an extended reflection in the middle of the novel by `The Beginner', at a poorly-attended provincial Book Club event, there is even the suggestion that the commercial literary system, though irretrievably poisoned by capitalism, is nevertheless the only game in town. "The Beginner had immediately recognised the type, universally known as `provincial writer who hasn't made it'. It was a very specific, widespread and in no way innocuous anthropological and literary category".
In general, I dislike novels about novel-writing (Amis's The Information, McEwan's Atonement left me cold). But this is different. Because The Parrots is the last word on the subject. I can't help feeling its accuracy is chilling.
The Beginner, The Writer and The Master compete for a prestigious book award. To win the award they have to ensure enough votes for their books. All three desperately wants the accolades and will do anything required to gather enough support.
Even if it meant that “If you’re not capable of creating a work of art, you have to become a work of art.”
They soon will discover that self-indulgence can only be successful if the social architecture of their environment allows them to succeed. Death, illness, women, workers and pets become Dionysiac metaphors for their personal ambitions and soon prove to be the factors they should have considered important enough, in the first place, in their quest for fame and fortune.
One of them demanded to win, one expected to win and one hoped to win. Not that all three of them acted out of free will. On the other hand, some temptations simply had to be yielded to, with unimaginable consequences.
The morphology of the book industry is such that their choices of agents, publishers and editors played a major role in the sinister outcome of the event. All three formed part of formidable teams, either acting as instigator or victim in their own plots. Whatever they envisioned for their destiny made them aware that the hardest part of any life, even a glamorous one, is to find one's feet and stay standing.
Some of them won't find their feet in their quest to seek self-justice. One of the contestants had to address a complex dilemma for which there was no easy solution, only a dramatic outcome. The surprising twist in the end almost make this book a thriller. Almost, but not quite! All three of them established some fundamental truths to feed their egos, such as:
..." suffering is a leper who walks with bells on his feet..."
"Life is too short to be devoted to suffering, people who suffer want to suffer, suffering is an invention of man: above the clouds the sun is always shining".
The narrative skill used in the book, makes it an informative, often poetic, as well as entertaining read. Numerous phrases caught my imagination, such as:
" His thoughts were watered by wine, fermented by the first sunshine of spring. "(paraphrased)
"When we are old we may say wise things, but when we are young we say true things."
This is a neat idea for a plot but rather spoiled by over-stylised writing which is just a little too pleased with itself. What might have been a biting satire on the place of awards in the arts instead emerges as little more than a smug exercise in modern writing. And what was with the parrot?
Regrettably, this book turned out to have more beak than bite. But here's the thing with translations: is it the author's failing or the translator's? Without the ability to read the original, it's impossible to know for sure.
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