Bats in Smoke

Emily Gould

  • Teach Us to Sit Still: A Sceptic’s Search for Health and Healing by Tim Parks
    Vintage, 335 pp, £8.99, July 2011, ISBN 978 0 09 954888 1
  • The Server by Tim Parks
    Harvill Secker, 288 pp, £16.99, May 2012, ISBN 978 1 84655 577 0

At some point in his mid-forties, the novelist Tim Parks developed a terrible pain, near-constant and located in embarrassing places: his lower abdomen and crotch. ‘I had quite a repertoire of pains at this point: a general smouldering tension throughout the abdomen, a sharp jab in the perineum, an electric shock darting down the inside of the thighs, an ache in the small of the back, a shivery twinge in the penis itself.’ He eventually overcame his chronic ache by practising Buddhist Vipassana meditation, but his memoir’s first 215 pages are devoted to the agonising specifics, complete with diagrams, of his futile search for a medical diagnosis. He tries repeatedly to ignore the pain and go on with his ordinary life, even as his mysterious condition prevents him from thinking for very long about anything other than the ‘lump of hot lava’ in his belly.

As Parks describes an endless string of doctors’ visits and wrong turns, his reading and writing give him perspective – some useful, some not – on his condition. Every book he reviews turns out to be somehow pertinent to his lava-lump: Thomas Hardy suffered from unexplained pelvic pains too, as did Benito Mussolini. Writing an introduction to Vitaliano Brancati’s Il bell’Antonio, a novel about a gorgeous young man whose impotence has something to do with Italy’s descent into fascism, Parks says he was tempted to ‘aestheticise’ his condition, to take it as a ‘puzzle to contemplate’ that might explain his whole life, as it would if he were the hero of a novel. But he’s looking for the answer in the wrong place, and so are the doctors who test him for various prostate conditions. The books he’s reading are not actually all about pain, and his prostate is normal.

The book that finally helps him solve his problem is a self-help volume he learns about during his predawn scrolling through pelvic-pain message boards. Called A Headache in the Pelvis, it explains that all his symptoms can be attributed to chronic clenching of the muscles of the pelvic floor, and prescribes a practice of ‘paradoxical relaxation’, a programme of silent, stationary deep breathing and single-pointed focusing on the pain that sounds suspiciously like non-Western medicine. It works, and Parks has a glimpse of his own inner landscape, like ‘Doctor Who’s Tardis: small on the outside, spacious when you went in’. The mysterious pains start to disappear for brief intervals and then, gradually, as Parks continues his paradoxical relaxation practice, retreat almost completely. But he has a disturbing sense that they haven’t gone far, imagining them as wolves prowling just outside the glow of the fire. One night he dreams he’s trying to untangle a stiffly knotted vine that has grown around a railing; he becomes so frustrated by the task’s seeming impossibility that he wants to cut the plant down. This is the catalyst for his next step: he checks himself into a week-long silent meditation retreat in the Alps.

The retreat centre, in a farmhouse high in the hills north of Milan, is a place of ironclad rules and rhythms: there’s to be no speaking, no leaving the grounds, no sexual activity or use of intoxicants, and no reading or writing. Participants are required to get up each morning before dawn, and sit in meditation for two hours. Then a Spartan breakfast is served, followed by more meditation, then lunch, then more meditation, then sleep: a total of ten or twelve hours a day of seated stillness. Parks is sceptical and unsure; he avoids finding out what Vipassana meditation is until just before setting off. ‘Vipassana,’ the internet tells him, ‘means seeing things as they really are. It is the process of self-purification by self-observation.’ It is, he’s told, a universal remedy, but he’s not convinced: ‘“Universal” and “remedy”, I thought, are two words that when put together can only epitomise wishful thinking, unless we are talking about a bullet in the brain.’

Sitting with his spine erect for hours at a time is physically difficult for him, and quieting his babbling mind – a writer’s mind, as he says, alive to detail and inclined to analysis at all times – is impossible at first. ‘After half an hour toes, feet, ankles, knees, thighs and hips welded together in a scorching pyre from which my curved trunk rose like the torso of some broken martyr. Round this carnage, thoughts flitted like bats in smoke.’ He thinks that ‘reflection comes at the expense of being,’ then congratulates himself on the idea, then worries he won’t remember it without being able to write it down, then seethes at himself for having any thoughts at all.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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