In the world of literary awards, may the best book win. Not so for the prize that is at the centre of Filippo Bologna’s satire, The Parrots, where winning The Prize (always capitalised) depends on mounting the best campaign. (Is this invented or do things work differently in Italy? Please tell in comments.)
Three authors are finalists for the prize in question: The Beginner, the Writer and the Master. Never named, they are obviously ciphers for the various stages of the literary career. The Beginner has written a flawed but otherwise excellent début, the Writer is at the height of his powers but getting a bit predictable, and the Master has written a highly literary novel that might be a tad worthy. For each man winning The Prize is a big deal: the Beginner to launch him to literary stardom, the Writer to give him the critical acclaim he craves, the Master because, having been diagnosed with a terminal illness, it is his last chance.
Of course the publishers are just as invested. The Beginner is sent to pound the bookshops with signings to raise his literary profile, the Writer is told to stop resting on his laurels, while the Master resorts to unfair influence. They all have to attend the various press conferences and official parties, parrot out the correct clichés and generally inveigle themselves with the judges.
The novel begins three months before The Prize Ceremony, when everything is fairly calm. At one month to the Prize ceremony, each author is beseiged by an extreme personal crisis. The Beginner’s Girlfriend, who feels that his success has made him vainglorious and selfish, has made their future relationship dependant on him losing The Prize, the Writer’s big (and brilliant) secret is threatening to end his career prematurely, and the Master has made enemies in all the wrong places.
One week to the ceremony and the publishers have done all the canvassing they can. It is now entirely up to the authors. The Writer is the bookie’s favourite but behind the scenes, the Beginner is in poll position (“because when you’re at the start, the critics forgive you everything“). What are they prepared to do to lose/win The Prize? Whatever it takes. By fair means or foul. Some of it is foul indeed. And it does affect the outcome.
Bologna has his sights trained on all aspects of the literary world: writers in all stages of their career, big publishers, small publishers, judging committees. Even literary audiences are not exempt from a lampooning. The omniscient narrator is knowing, and very, very funny, with the joke never falling flat. The pacing is excellent with those increasingly desperate measures ensuring that the pages turned entirely of their own volition! (Or so it seemed to me.)
The Parrots of the title are a bit of a curiosity. I think they do allude in some way to the three authors. But there is also a strange malevolent black parrot that crashes into the Beginner’s flat window at the start. Another (or is it the same one) appears in the final scene. I have no idea what it portends. All theories welcome.
Stage 6 of my Reading Around the World and Back Again with Pushkin Press project, this post is part of the Pushkin Press Fortnight 2017, organised by Stu of Winstonsdad.
Next stop: Spain