- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 17, 2008

Toward the end of Tim Parks’ 11th novel, the book’s rascally, middle-aged protagonist ponders the meaning of his surname: “It had always fascinated Cleaver that a cleaver was something that chopped things in two, meat usually, while to cleave might also mean to cling to someone, to become part of them. A man shall cleave unto his wife and they shall be one flesh. One meat. He had never bothered looking into the etymology of this. But then he had never married either. Can you really become part of someone else? On the other hand, could I ever properly separate myself from Amanda?”

Nevertheless, separate he does, if only for the time being. And in this vigorously told tale of family ties and hardships, while Amanda is not his wife, she is his “partner of thirty years” and the mother of his children.

Star journalist Harold Cleaver has run away partly in response to a vicious autobiographical novel written by their son Alex called “Under His Shadow.” He takes to the road, first boarding a British Airways flight from London to Milan, taking a train “as far as Bruneck in the South Tyrol and thence by taxi northwards, to the village of Luttach only a few kilometres from the Austrian border, from whence he hoped to find some remote mountain habitation in which to spend the next, if not necessarily the last, years of his life.”

There’s flight and then there’s flight.

“Cleaver” is in many ways the perfectly rendered escape-from-it-all novel. At 55, bald overweight and convinced that he is “only a few moments away from a heart attack,” Cleaver seeks and finds in the remote mountain range a wooden shack 2,000 feet above the nearest village. Its last occupant was a Nazi war criminal and the only way to reach it is on foot or by horse cart driven by the local alcoholic. There, he makes friends with the villagers, settles in and reflects on his life.

Remembered passages from his son’s novel trouble him deeply, but profound anguish is reserved for thoughts about Alex’s twin sister Angela, who died in a car accident. This is a book made believable and affecting because of Cleaver’s likability and the ways in which he is deeply bound to his family. And like Mr. Parks’ most recent novels, “Destiny,” “Judge Savage” and “Rapids” it is the solitary male pitted against life’s mysteries and hardships who draws us in. Here, the story resonates because of Cleaver’s utterly convincing attempt to make sense of his loss and betrayal.

Mr. Parks is a literary writer and the immense pleasure of this book comes in no small way from the beauty and wit of the prose. The author, who was born in Manchester England, and has lived in Verona for the past 20 years brings a refreshing cosmopolitanism to his work. Cleaver’s riffs on his famous interview with the U.S. president and glimpses of the ways Alex has portrayed him in the offending book make for an entertaining and textured read.

“My father, his son had written, would have competed with Carl Lewis at the hundred metres, with Muhammad Ali in the ring, with Pete Sampras on the tennis court. He was quite simply the most competitive man who ever lived. Sometimes I felt that he had chosen Mother and she him because, since they both worked in the media, they would be able to compete with each other day in day out their lives long. It’s a lie that I competed with the children thought, Cleaver thought.”

And as Cleaver trods over the wounds, the recent history, reflecting about what happened, what might be next the reader is slowly brought into his world and given over to sympathy.

“The artist is always a puppet, my father said. Never the puppeteer. The public is the puppeteer, he insisted. Shakespeare’s Prospero, he used to say, begs the audience to set him free at the end. He puts all the other characters under a spell but then has to beg to be set free himself. By the public. I must have heard my father say this at least a dozen times.”

Read this book and savor all that it frees.


By Tim Parks

Arcade, $25, 320 pages

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