| Jerry Marlow is a familiar character to Tim Parks' readers. He is a British expat living in Italy, making a mess of his personal life, divorced and bemoaning the end of an extramarital love affair. A professor of languages at the University of Milan, Marlow joins a busload of students and faculty on a trip to Strasbourg, France, to petition the European Parliament about the treatment he and his colleagues are receiving at their university, which they feel is counter to the rules of the European Union -- and putting their jobs in jeopardy. He admits to the reader that he has no belief in this cause, and is literally along for the ride because his ex-lover is going. Indeed, his love for her is obsessive enough that he calls her simply "her" throughout the text, unable to bring himself to utter the woman's name until the last sentence in the novel. Marlow, who left his wife and daughter for "her," is hardly a bastion of virtue -- he sent "her" to the hospital twice as a result of his jealous rages.
To those readers interested in the politics of the European Union, this novel is a gift in its honest detail and wit. To those who know less about the politics of European integration and merely want to read a good love story wrapped in a midlife crisis, "Europa" works on that level, too. It shows the complexities of trying to integrate the diverse humanities and nationalities and ethnic groups into a European community on a level beyond merely producing a unified currency. Each character -- from Marlow to his French ex-lover to an Indian Welshman, an Irish novelist and the Italian students -- encompasses enough national clichés and individuality to make it clear how difficult a seamless European Union will be to create. Though none of these characters are exemplary citizens, they are all profoundly human in their flaws.
Parks, himself a British expatriate living in Italy, writes about obsessive love -- and the loss of love -- as well as any novelist writing today. A translator and novelist, Parks is the author of eight other novels, and "Europa" was shortlisted for last year's Booker Prize. He has the leisure of writing free of an American political correctness: The bus in which he rides through Europe is named the "shag wagon" by one of his professorial colleagues who announces before landing in Strasbourg that the faculty and students should choose partners for the evening. (Imagine such a thing at an American university -- the litigation would be filed before the faculty alighted from the bus!) Parks' humor moves the novel along and makes his deeply flawed characters endearing and memorable.
Yet along with his humor comes a pathos that brings an unexpected ending to the novel. Tragedy hits one of the travelers and the novel's sexual escapades are eclipsed by the very real desperation felt by faculty members whose jobs are in jeopardy, with alimony and child support to pay, or singles dependent on a state pension, "lost ... in this Europe that may or may not exist."