Thursday, 21 August 2014

The Server by Tim Parks


Tim Parks is living the life of a successful writer and translator in Tuscany with views of vineyards probably. The enormous tragedy of the dream in the peasant's bent shoulders, well this peasant anyway. I agree that somebody has to do it but there was a fly in the ointment; constant and severe pelvic pain. He tried everything until he came across a book that suggested that his symptoms were due to pelvic clenching. The technical term is 'tight assed'. The intensity of being an ambulant writerly brain combined with a natural propensity for tension was ruining his life. Finally he came to vipassana or insight meditation which involves a very strenuous 10 day programme of sitting for hours at a time, observing silence and eschewing the distractions of mobile phones, reading and writing. It's an ancient Therevada practice and though I have my doubts about the Annica/Annata (Momentariness/NoSelf)doctrine which underpins it I admit that, at this level of the Pre-Reflective, doctrine falls away. For Parks it was a way of engaging with his pain which cut the knot and healed him. This is the basis of his book Teach Us to Sit Still and the summary I offer is from reviews. I must read it sometime.

What has this to do with the book which I read recently called The Server (pub.2012)? It is in my view the recycling of his observations of the types that frequent those courses and his recollections of the mental states and physical torments that accompany sitting in meditation for several hours a day. The Server of the title is a young woman who after a near drowning caused by her plunging into a stormy sea stoned and drawing others after her by daring them to follow. One of them in a coma and may not survive. She, Beth Marriot, has take refuge in this meditation centre and at the time the book opens has been there for 10 months working as a server in the kitchen preparing food, cleaning the toilets doing Seva or service. For this she gets her keep and the access to the regular meditation practice in the hall or strong determination as they call it. We have the privileged access to her mind courtesy of Parks and in the best tradition of sarvasunyavada (Nihilism or the Scholiasts of the Void) it is entirely solus ipse. She was before this catastrophe a singer and guitar player in a band called 'Pocus'. She is a wild child, a free spirit, promiscuous with a taste for men the age of her father who really wanted a son and not three daughters. The dots are very close. Parks has risked a novel whose protagonist is somewhat narcissistic and therefore lacking in insight. Despite all the strenuous sitting very little karma is burnt and so her mental travelling is in tight little circles. There isn't going to be a breakthrough which is often the truth. We sense very well her flailing about because she is unripe. Start Early, Drive Slowly, Reach Safely was a motto I saw once in a Indian Ashram. Here in this centre it's Drive at speed, maybe Crash and Burn.

It's chancy presenting an unsympathetic needy character who messes with the lives of those around them. Contra the rules as a server she has access to the mens' rooms and snoops in their belongings hoping to find them also breaking the rules. One man is keeping a journal,bold boy, about his failing marriage, failing business and daughter who has taken up with a much older drunk. This retreat is to fashion an interregnum and fortify him, an escape in other words. Has no one read the words of the Buddha, approximately, 'Because I got nothing out of this enlightenment it is a surpassing enlightenment'.

Beth's to and fro this journal and her relationship to the other servers and mentors is well drawn. The novel being bounded by a single centre of action and consciousness could have failed but the boring aspects of the self-involved can be delineated without toppling into tedium itself. Parks reaches safely. Worth reading.

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