No sensible writer wastes good material. A couple of years ago Tim Parks published a memoir, Teach Us to Sit Still, a tale of chronic, debilitating back pain that appeared to have no physical cause. He tried everything, short of major surgery, and even toyed with that for a while. Finally, in desperation, this lifelong sceptic took up meditation, and found to his amazement that it worked.
By the book’s end we realised that we had been reading not so much about a man’s ill health as about a very particular and challenging midlife crisis. Parks is a novelist and academic who has lived and worked in Italy for the best part of 30 years: a pleasant enough existence, you would have thought, but middle age gets us all in the end. Old ways of living start to fail you, and you have to find new ones. And the more immune you think you are to this process, the more vulnerable you actually are.
Like all the best writers, though, Parks’s life feeds his fiction, even to its detriment (in Teach Us to Sit Still he admitted that one or two of his recent novels may have suffered because his back hurt so much). So it should come as no great shock that in this, his 15th novel, we find ourselves in a Buddhist retreat, where the troubled and traumatised come to meditate their way out of whatever ails them.
Not that the Dasgupta Institute is any sort of holiday camp. Sex is banned, men and women are strictly segregated, all conversation is discouraged and there are never quite enough bananas to go round at breakfast.
Our narrator (not wholly reliable) is Beth Marriot, the sort of bright, bold young woman traditionally described by blurb-writers as ‘feisty’. She is that novelistic standby, the failed rock star, whose life has crumbled and confidence has collapsed. For the past eight months she has been a volunteer, a server, cooking and cleaning at the Institute in return for bed and board.
But her demons cannot be vanquished so easily. Precisely because it’s not allowed, she creeps into the male quarters when no one is there, and starts reading the diaries of one of the inmates. He is a man in middle age, a failing publisher in a failing marriage, peevish, pompous and even more self-absorbed than Beth herself. Needless to say, she becomes fascinated by him. Will he discover that she has been rootling through his belongings? Will she get thrown out of the Institute? Will we find out what terrible events compelled her to come here in the first place?
One problem with the Dasgupta Institute is that very little happens there. Even a loose cannon like Beth can only stir things up so much. But she does make a useful guide to the place, for she is conflicted as we are. Is Dasgupta a true visionary or a complete fraud? Sometimes he seems like both in the same paragraph. Can the meditation free Beth of her accumulated burdens, or does it just enable her to suppress them? I don’t know enough about the subject to be able to tell, but then nor, I guess, will most readers.
Much of the pleasure of the novel lies in its ambiguity, for meaning and certainty always stay slightly out of reach, for us as for her. It is a tribute to Parks’s craftsmanship that he has made so much out of not a great deal at all, for this is an eminently readable and thought-provoking novel that teases you to the last page, and possibly beyond.
I enjoyed it more than the memoir, admirable though that was, but then I don’t necessarily like all my questions answered. That, in the end, is why we read novels, and delight in pushing real life a little to one side.
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