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Reviews of ‘Mimi’s Ghost’

The Italian underbelly

Times Literary Supplement, 27 January 1998

by Jonathan Keates

Most modern English fiction with an Italian setting has tended to opt for Tuscany or Umbria to furnish suitable backdrops, confident that decor and a few authenticating allusions to works of art and the bloodier vicissitudes of medieval history will do the trick when localizing detail is required. Few of the novelists who use this Chianti-and-frescos formula have ever actually spent long periods in Italy themselves, or sought to investigate the infrastructure of social ritual and traditional prejudice underlying Italian life, let alone absorb the rhythms of daily existence which their presence as tourists scarcely disturbs.
That Tim Parks, so far from being a tourist, had become almost an honorary Italian, was evident from his Italian Neighbours (1992), the shrewdest of engagements with the subtleties of plain living in a Veneto suburb. His novels, too, have staked out this territory, and their world is recognizably the Bossi and Berlusconi fiefdom: of gloomy chandeliers in the darkened soggiorno; a plastic crucifix on the office wall where the chicken-farmer’s nephew is fiddling his tax returns; sex and childbirth on the family’s hand-me-down letto matrimoniale; and the aged onorevole Andreotti, still unfingered for his associations with the Mafia. “Italy, it was heartening to think was still that kind of place”, reflects Parks’s hero, Morris, with no apparent hint of cynicism, after a chastening spell in prison.

Morris plays to its fullest extent that attractive role in which Italian women so often delight to cast Englishmen; eternally amateur, ingenuous, clumsy, incapable of focusing instinct or seizing opportunity, yet always enchanting in his gaucherie and misplaced good intentions. Whether or not he murdered Mimi. the girl who ran away with him in Parks’s novel Cara Massimina (to which this is a sequel) scarcely matters – though since Mimi’s Ghost transforms him into something along the lines of a serial killer, previous experience undoubtedly comes in handy.

Mimi – a dead hand beside which Mr Casaubon’s looks a mere limp wrist – refuses to leave Morris alone. The Blithe Spirit syndrome takes over as her shade becomes his minder, his agent, his manipulator, and, at the end of the book, most bizarre of all her ghostly manifestations, his spiritual director, driving him to crime, sexual anarchy and near-sainthood, all in the name of the inner tranquillity he manages to achieve in the book’s closing pages.
“He would accept his mere humanity and live the only way one could; from day to day, from hand to mouth.” Such an acceptance is only made possible through a grotesque sequence of comic mishaps which leads Morris to murder, first, his penny-pinching pompous ass of a brother-in-law, Pollo Bobo, and afterwards, his wife, Paola whose obsessively knowing voice with its exasperating habit of calling him Mo we long to throttle.

The surrounding cast – including Hobbes, a benevolent homosexual aesthete and avatar of a more detached British expatriate tradition, and Bobo’s wife Antonella, the ultimate good egg with whom Morris reads the Bible on the sofa after supper as part of his redemptive programme – form elements of a drama in several simultaneous modes and keys, brought off with an unfussed accomplishment typical of the author. Social realism, complete with moonlighting Third World migrants and obtuse carabinieri, shades winningly into the black comedy of nocturnal corpse-swapping before something a little more earnestly Catholic in outline takes over. Perhaps the real instruments of Morris’s salvation, however, are those we find so compelling in Parks’s consistently assured grasp, the muddy cocktail of indulgence and asperity offered by contemporary Italy, and the posthumous glamour of Mimi, irresistible as incubus, siren or tutelary goddess.