NWR Issue 106

The Parrots

by Fillipo Bologna, trans Howard Curtis

Fillipo Bologna, screenwriter, essayist and journalist, is no stranger to the murky world of literary prizes. His debut novel, How I Lost the War, won the 2009 Strega Prize and in 2012 was shortlisted for the prestigious 2012 Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize. His second novel, The Parrots, focuses on three writers in the three months preceding the Prize, a broadly fictitious literary prize that has made heroes of three men: the Beginner, the Writer, and the Master.

Bologna demonstrates an expert eye for human observation, and Howard Curtis’ lucid translation captures this beautifully. Each character the reader meets during their three-month stay in Bologna’s Rome is a painfully well realised caricature of the literati. No one and nothing is spared. From the harmless provincial writer (cruelly, he is not granted capitals) met at the Literary Event (‘a typical type of provincial pedant, who would first put forward some criticisms of his book but then become unctuous and servile’) to the superstitious Director of the Small Publishing Company who believes the Master’s talent is manifested in his tools and lucky charms. Indeed a sizable chunk of The Parrots is taken up by the Master’s quixotic attempts to rid himself of ‘The Evil Eye’.

If one single villain is to be looked for in a book that joyfully charts the escapades and self-machinated failures of three grown men, it is arguably to be found in the Publisher: “‘Thinking for my authors… of my authors,” he corrected himself, “is my job.”’

He is a slimy individual with a suitably Machiavellian grip on his misguided moral compass and at his most greasy when imparting advice to the Writer: ‘“What if you fell? What would the papers write?” … “If a writer kills himself, he’s only doing his duty.”’ With friends like the Publisher who needs enemies?

But even when the ‘heroic’ trio’s failures are drawn out to their logical satirical extremes, it is clear that Bologna is dealing with basic trials and doubts that will be familiar to all readers. At its most damning, Bologna turns The Parrots to deconstruct literary events and the prizes which spawn them. It is in these sections of the narrative that he is most biting, and it is no small surprise, considering the fetishist Italian passion for prizes (the most prominent, the Strega, is regularly attended by fashionistas and the showbiz elite). Early on in the novel, the Beginner appears at a poorly attended event in the city and remarks of the motley crowd that they wish him to be ‘naked, bound to the stake of the event, a Saint Sebastian ready to be transfixed by the arrows of stupid questions and executed by the intelligent ones.’

This notion of writing as exhibition is a prominent theme throughout the book, often inviting one to draw comparisons between the Prize and the gladiatorial displays during the decline of the Roman Empire: ‘In short the feeling is that the hotel is kept open only out of a stubborn desire not to acknowledge its own downfall.’ Here, the Beginner casts his writerly eye over a dilapidated hotel and describes the event most succinctly, cleverly juxtaposing the hotel with the pomp and ceremony of the prize.

Many potential readers may be put off by a book about writers, but they’ll avoid it at their own folly. Through Curtis, Bologna offers a truly modern novel bursting with style and wit. Two charming narrative devices turn on Google maps and the ‘sock-puppeting’ of amazon reviews. It is a grim but otherwise enjoyable satire of a world many would wish to be a part of; yet (despite the harsh critique and morals nesting in The Parrots) I would not be at all surprised if Bologna’s book does nothing to dissuade readers from taking up the pen because, in the words of the Publisher, ‘“This isn’t an egg. It’s a book. And all of you are my hens.”’

Phillip Clement is a freelance reviewer for a range of publications, and recently completed an extended marketing residency at Gladstone’s Library

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