- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 20, 2006


By Tim Parks

Arcade, $24, 246 pages


One winter afternoon more than a year ago, I went hiking with a friend. The air was cold, the woods were empty, and as we climbed a modest mountainside, our quiet conversation began to die away. For three hours, I was aware only of my surroundings: the stony trail, the leafless trees, the occasional deer, the striking views of the valley below.

During our descent, my friend’s cell phone rang. He took the call and started to talk, and whatever mystery there had been in the woods — in that cold wintry silence that I’d escaped the city to find — was gone, replaced by the jarring noise of everyday life. Just then, another hiker approached us, bounding up the mountainside. As he passed, he glanced at my friend, still in the midst of conversation, shook his head disapprovingly, and said to me, “You just can’t get away from it, can you.”

I recalled this episode when reading Tim Parks’ superb new novel, “Rapids,” about a group of 11 English kayakers on a five-day paddling trip in the Italian Alps. Though the adventurers find themselves in a remote world of pristine beauty — with “solid slopes rising steeply through gleaming meadow and dark pine,” “barren walls of rock,” and “patches of snow shining distantly to cap dizzying cliffs of dark stones” — the trappings of modern life intrude nevertheless. Cell phone calls are made, text messages are sent, the nearest town’s Internet cafe is visited. Indeed, the tension between the primitive and the modern is everywhere in Mr. Parks’ novel: He seems to ask, Can we continue to explore the natural world, search out its mysteries, with cell phones in our pockets?

In several wonderful novels (such as “Destiny” and “Europa”) as well as personal essays and an absolute classic work of nonfiction (“A Season With Verona,” about hooliganism and Italian football), Mr. Parks has created one of the most literary and literate bodies of work of any writer today. But his books always entertain (a quality that should not be looked down upon); his writing gives tremendous pleasure.

Perhaps it is Mr. Parks’ skill at manipulating suspense, at plunging the reader into a scene and pulling him quickly out, so that he is eager for another dip. Certainly the writer’s staccato, almost breathless prose in “Rapids” is exhilarating to read, befitting a novel in which dangerous whitewater rapids figure so prominently.

The English kayakers in “Rapids” include Vince, an important bank executive who has recently lost his wife to a stroke and who has brought along his daughter, Louise, to Italy. The group’s instructor, Clive, is everything Vince is not: headstrong, magnetic, daring, virtuosic on the water: “He wishes he were in another era, exploring virgin territory, commanding soldiers.”

He is also rather flat, as E.M. Forster would have put it. That is, Clive tends to espouse a single set of ideas; he is a leftist and an environmentalist who rarely departs from his denunciations of globalization and global warming. His foil, Adam, is similarly flat, sounding notes from the right wing as predictably as Clive does from the left.

More interesting (and complicated) is Clive’s partner, the beautiful Italian Michela. “I hate my mother tongue,” she thinks. “I hate this country,” meaning Italy. Indeed, she is the Anglophile’s Anglophile, speaking fluent, nearly accent-less English: “Her destiny is England and English. She feels this deeply. To become truly strong, she must leave Italy.”

But in disdaining her motherland, Michela has lost her own identity, due in no small part to her attraction to — one might say hero worship of — Clive. While kayaking, “she was aware of emulating his deft certainty;” on shore, by his side, “she had never felt more protected.” As the novel begins, Clive breaks off his relationship with Michela, and so the novel dramatizes the Italian girl’s necessary transformation, from disciple to master.

Indeed, the novel is filled with such human dramas. Some are innocent: the inevitable first loves and holiday flings that arise when teenagers (and adults) are far from home. And some are cathartic; Vince, who emerges from this large cast of characters as the novel’s protagonist and most sympathetic figure, will embark on an inner journey that is the novel’s essence.

When we first encounter Vince, he is distraught, mentally adrift, seemingly without purpose, plagued by “a sort of intense, wordless inner paralysis.” The water is his salvation, each capsizing (he is a lousy kayaker) a kind of minor baptism for him, revealing the possibility of triumph, of hope in the wake of his wife’s death. To go so often beneath the river’s surface and then come up for air again is a thrilling experience. “Then after this flash of pleasure,” Mr. Parks writes, “the dark returns, with an awful inevitability.”

This darkness has to do with the realization that his marriage to Gloria had been one of comfort and routine, but not, perhaps, of love. He is constantly aware and envious of others in love, for it is the absence of love, he now realizes, from which he has suffered for so long. This epiphany is heightened by the majesty of his surroundings, the external increasing the intensity of the internal:

“Vince looked up. The glacier beyond the castle was obscured by mist. Shining from behind the nearest mountains, a last flare of summer light had turned the vapour to bright milk above the somber gorge below. It was like some of the skies [he] had seen in old paintings in Florence, Vince thought: cosmic drama above tortured saints. He stopped. There was no passion between myself and Gloria, he said out loud.”

Something in Vince changes in the wilderness. In the presence of the water, of the towering peaks, of the beautiful Michela, to whom he feels attracted, he wants nothing more than to loosen his attachments — certainly to his life at the bank, “the coffee machine, fluorescent lighting, e-mails, meetings, phone-calls,” but also to his daughter, Louise.

This urge is the height of selfishness (a quality shared by several of the book’s characters, namely Michela and Clive), but it is liberating, too. Vince is answering some primal, some primordial call, which he hears, for example, in a small cave behind a magnificent waterfall, a “cold, roaring place, at the heart of everything … but dark and hidden.” The mysteries of life, he thinks, are not puzzled over in the boardroom, but here, in the cold, roaring places of the earth — despite the fact that even in the South Tyrol, he is only a cell-phone call away from that boardroom.

When he symbolically removes his gold wedding band and lets it fall into the whitewater, “in a gesture he couldn’t understand,” he contemplates retreating into nature for good. He wants to be what he absolutely isn’t: the hermit, the recluse, the rugged mountain man. But is this life — of outdoor sport and community with nature, where masculine is clearly delineated from feminine — any more authentic than the world of mergers and shareholders, emails and text messages?

Vince’s is a false idealism, Mr. Parks seems to suggest. Michela believes that those who seek out dangerous outdoor pursuits do so because they are afraid to confront the ugly realities of their lives. Vince is unconvinced by this. Life may indeed have “been a tired spell, from which he was suddenly released,” but to him, an escape into the primitive is not a cowardly act, but the real business of living.

Sudip Bose is senior editor of Preservation magazine.

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