Make Ready the Champagne Bottleby Samuel Ashworth
(Pushkin Press, 2013)
Writing a novel about writers is a risky business for an author. There are any number of ways for the thing to go wrong: an indifference to plot, excessive cynicism about the industry, protagonists who are not “tortured” so much as they are torturous, or most tediously, an overweening authorial self-importance that verges on Messianism. Any of these flaws can scuttle a book; the sea-floors of literature are littered with the rotting wreckage of novels about writers, novels too heavy, or unbalanced, or dense to stay afloat. It is cause for some small fanfare, then—or at least a celebratory bashing of a champagne bottle—when such a novel proves itself sea-worthy.
In The Parrots, Filippo Bologna has managed to construct a vessel whose biting satire is so perfectly ballasted by empathy—if not compassion—that it tacks between high literary majesty and good hard slapstick without ever capsizing. The conceit is simple and clever: three writers, citizens of Rome, have been named as finalists for Italy’s highest literary honor: the Prize. Our finalists are the Beginner, an ingenuous wunderkind who has, rather accidentally, authored a book that has catapulted him to fame and critical acclaim; the Writer, a middle-aged household name soaked in wealth and public veneration, but who has been sitting on his laurels for so long he is practically taking root; and the Master, an obscure, broke old poet who mostly covets the cash that comes with the prize, and whose prostate is hosting a blossoming tumor. Indeed, the only thing these three men—and they are all men (the most important woman in the novel spends the entirety of it in a coma)—have in common is their desire to win the Prize, and the fact that they are, to a one, willing to fight dirty to win it.
Bologna’s debut novel How I Lost the War was a finalist for the Premio Strega prize, Italy’s highest award, so he is coming to this party with experience on his arm—in other words, he knows that a prize is never just about the author who wins it. Rather, the author is orbited by an entire primium mobile of publishers, agents, editors, family members, and civilian doyennes, all of whom have a strong personal interest in the outcome—particularly the people who, by creating the prize and laboring to maintain its prestige, have arrogated great power and authority to themselves, and are keen on keeping both. And while some of these seem to proceed through the novel like half-inflated parade floats, never quite getting off the ground, but still capable of considerable property damage (the Writer in particular is a bit of a wretch), most are rendered with a delectable combination of fondness and dark, mordant satire.
Perhaps the most surprising, welcome thing about The Parrots is the care Bologna has invested in the novel’s plot. An experienced screenwriter as well, he seems to know that writers, by nature, make for awfully boring characters. Left to their own devices, they will produce as much entertainment as a cat staring at a wall; at best they can generally muster up a bout of unhappy adultery in between long nighttime walks. Thus, Bologna has done well to make sure the above-mentioned third parties—the Second Wife, the Girlfriend, the Filipino, the Director of the Small Publishing Company—are put on a drama-and-comedy production schedule that runs with Swiss efficiency. Accidents happen, shoes are lost, public appearances turn into fiascoes, girlfriends discover betrayal, a parrot crashes through a windowpane, and in one scene involving the Master’s urination logbook being mistaken for a poetry notebook, Bologna nails the punchline so perfectly that James Joyce himself, whose “cloacal obsession” is all over this book, would have stood up and applauded.
As a side note, the sewer humor in this book is crude, constant, and sublime. It has surely not escaped Bologna’s notice that in Italian, pappagallo (parrot) also refers to a type of bedpan used to enable sick men to urinate while still in bed—the exact object (brimming with fresh urine) that the Master kicks over in his very first scene in the book, at precisely the same dawn hour that the eponymous, literal parrot comes crashing through the Beginner’s window. And since throughout the novel excretion is used as an analogue for fiction-writing (a “sanitized hotel toilet sealed with a paper band around it, so similar to the one they put on his book with a rave review”), that makes this novel the perfect pappagallo.
And like any good bedpan, the structure of this book is simple and functional: the finalists’ narratives weave around each other, and rarely do we spend more than three or four consecutive pages in the company of any one of them before flying across Rome to alight on the next one’s head, like the “starlings at Termini Station [who] don’t read books and don’t compete for prizes.” (Birds, as the title suggests, are all over this book, observing from above like gods on Olympus). Because of the ignis fatuus of the Prize, however, Bologna doesn’t need to follow the usual path of multi-perspectival narratives, which tend to drive predictably toward a climax in which all of the characters are brought together to realize their destiny, or reveal a terrible secret. Instead, the finalists’ shared desire for the Prize provides all the conflict the book needs, because Bologna knows competition is not really about the other guy. The Finalists circle one another, with intel on the others’ activities provided by their agents and publishers, until finally the pressure of the Prize drives each one to acts of desperation, deceit, and witchcraft.
And yet, all these elements I’ve described—the narrative brio, the cinematic aspects, the enormous attention to plot, the eyeball-catching leaps across Rome—sound like the trappings of a pandering beach read. But this is the signal pleasure of The Parrots: the entertaining plot reassures the reader that there is a point to all this, and it will be gotten to, which allows Bologna to invest real intelligence and power in his real purpose: the articulation of what it is to be a writer.
Throughout the novel, Bologna’s writing (in Howard Curtis’s exemplary translation) is scintillating. A porter immured in his lodge, smoking a cigarette and dumbly watching a Pop-Idol-type show, is a “Soyuz drifting in the sidereal space of ignorance.” But he reserves his most artful prose for the subject closest to his heart: the essential absurdity of authors, the “scoundrels who climb naked onto a ledge and threaten to throw themselves off if nobody will listen to them.” The Writer, who does not “take the underground or shop in supermarkets,” looks at the faces of an audience on TV, faces “as neutral as bars of soap,” and wonders if these are his readers. The Beginner can hardly remember how he wrote his first book, which he feels “is like a foundling wheel in the Middle Ages. Someone arrives, leaves a baby wrapped in a bundle outside a monastery, rings the bell, and runs away.” Bologna’s Finalists are venal, insecure, cowardly, ambitious (the Beginner longs to arrogate to himself the ultimate privilege of great writers: that of being late), and probably not even very good writers. Yet Bologna does not condemn them, does not punish them. Instead, the reader is left with hope for all of them, hope that once this silly pursuit of a silly prize is ended, they may yet come out a little wiser. And it is the author’s willingness to forgive these hapless men their pettiness that keeps The Parrots from foundering under its own satiric weight, and makes it that rarest of books: a damn decent novel about writers.
The Parrots may not be a Great Book. It is too unkempt, too messy, too rangy in its attentions, and too ham-fisted in its attempts at symbolism (the role of the mystical, window-breaking parrot has your reviewer, as well as all respondents, flummoxed). But because it is all these things, because it is rude, it is sharp, it is vulgar, and it is, at times, as beautiful as the rosy blush on an old dipsomaniac’s cheeks, The Parrots is a terrific book.