The Parable Book: Per Olov Enquist

★★★

My one previous experience with Per Elov Enquist was via his novel The Visit of the Royal Physician, and it wasn’t an entirely comfortable introduction. I puzzled over what to make of the book’s jagged, disjointed style and was troubled by its detached emotional tone. At the time I wondered whether it was down to author, or translator, but now I can say, quite confidently, that it’s the author’s style. The Parable Book, translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner, has much the same cool, conceptual flavour. It is, however, a rather different beast from the Royal Physician: whereas that was a clear historical novel, this book weaves between genres. Is it novel, autobiography, family memoir, confessional history or philosophical exploration? It is even more disorientating than the Royal Physician, but it makes its mark: there’s something fierce and vivid and urgent at its heart.

As the book opens, the unnamed narrator is struggling to write a eulogy for his recently deceased mother, which he plans to give to her grandchildren. He wants to offer memory, hope and perhaps some guidance, but he finds that in thinking about his mother’s death he constantly, and unavoidably, comes back to the imminent prospect of his own. With so many of his friends dead or dying, he feels their eyes on him, demanding some kind of explanation: what was the point of it all? What is the one lesson that we take away from life? What makes it all worthwhile? Weighed down by responsibility, the narrator isn’t getting anywhere until he starts thinking about a package he recently received from a cousin. It contained various documents linked to the narrator’s father, who died when he was an infant, among which is a charred notebook of poems.

This notebook, like Proust’s madeleine, becomes the key that opens the floodgates to the narrator’s past. It’s a relic of something beyond his own knowledge: why were these poems written, when they fit so poorly with what he was always told of his father? Who were the poems written to? Do they indicate a deep love of the narrator’s mother, or were they the testament of love for some other woman? Why was the notebook burned? More to the point, why was it partially burned and then rescued? And what was on the nine pages that have been torn out? Tormented by these missing pages, the narrator fantasises that they may have contained the key to everything: the one parable that will make sense of our turbulent, careening journey through life. In the absence of these pages, however, he seeks parables within his own experience – moments that had profound meaning for him, and which have helped to make him the person he is today. From his grandfather’s stories about the adventures of a red fox, which becomes a symbol of wisdom and insight for the infant narrator, to Kipling’s Kim’s search for enlightenment, to the sufferings of his cousin Siklund in an asylum, the narrator seeks meaning in his memories. Increasingly, he’s drawn closer and closer to the one thing he promised never to speak about: his own first sexual encounter, at the age of fifteen, with a much older woman. This experience, more than anything else, promises to hold the essence of the redemption and freedom for which the narrator has been desperately searching his entire life.

But what is the book really about? It’s presented as a novel, with the narrator consistently referred to in the third person as ‘he’, and yet his circumstances, his works and his name are shared with Enquist. Let’s call this narrator POE for the moment. There are references to other real people, not least the surprising revelation that the young POE’s summer retreat stood alongside a house owned by the Larsson family, whose grandson Stieg grew up to have such literary success. (POE wonders whether it’s significant that both he and Larsson became writers: does it indicate the inspirational qualities of the place, or the suffocating quality of the upbringing that they both felt compelled to escape in fiction?) We are given the illusion of confessional writing, but is this really the autobiography that’s implied, or are we being teased with the pretence of confidentiality? Is it about the lifelong impact of a brief afternoon making love to an older woman in one long-ago summer, or is it about something much larger: religion, faith and fear of what happens after death – a fear of somehow being called to account for what one’s done in life? Is it more of a social history, about the oppressiveness of mid-20th-century provincial Sweden, where public piety disguises private sin? Some, POE suggests, try to break out of this hypocritical system by rebelling against the norm. Of these rebels, some are thrown into asylums and stigmatised as mad. Others – with a touch of humour – become writers.

If the Royal Physician was disjointed, The Parable Book feels like a stream of consciousness, a flickering of memories and tangents and names spinning in the air, or like a meandering monologue in which the (self-confessedly) elderly narrator gropes his way half-blind through the detritus of his family’s history. There is a sense of breathless struggle to it all. It doesn’t make for easy reading, but it does conjure up the fight to justify having lived at all (‘Do not go gentle…’ as Dylan Thomas would have it). POE repeatedly asserts that he has lost his religion, but the very fact that he’s searching for meaning suggests that he still feels there is some Greater Plan. And of course, the title of the book plays with notions of religion and secularism, in which the instructive parables are taken from disjointed, almost dreamlike events in POE’s own life.

Did I like the book? I don’t know. The Kindle version I read had strange formatting, with broken lines which suggest that some sections might be presented almost as poetry in the printed edition. And there were odd scattered words in italics, whose point wasn’t always immediately obvious. This may all become clearer in the print version, though. Ultimately I don’t think I get on with Enquist as a writer, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate what he does. Here the ideas whirl and eddy, like ashes in the updraught of a fire, and frequently POE’s narration hares off in completely different directions, which can be very difficult to follow. This isn’t a neat, pruned, linear book. But it does, I think, have class. Behind the screen of chaos, one senses a hand on the reins. Perhaps those reins just aren’t quite pulled taut enough. Another problem is that The Parable Book is hugely self-referential. Enquist relies on the reader’s intimate knowledge of his earlier work, so that scattered allusions help to build a picture of his creative life. Having only read one of his books before and that, sod’s law, being the one novel he never seems to mention, I felt very much as if I was floundering at a party where everyone else had known each other for years. Another reviewer, who hadn’t read any of Enquist’s work, was entirely baffled.

In short, this is not the place to begin with Enquist. Without good prior knowledge of his work The Parable Book comes across as meandering at best and self-indulgent at worst. But, if you don’t worry about understanding, and let the ideas flow over you, it’s possible to appreciate it as a heartfelt, poetic, somewhat self-centred mediation on the purpose of existence.

I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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