Sex is forbidden at the Dasgupta Institute. So what is the sparkling, magnetically attractive Beth Marriot doing here? Why is a young woman whose irrepressible vitality and confident ego were once set on conquest and stardom, now spending month after month serving in the vegetarian kitchen of a bizarrely severe Buddhist retreat? Beth is fighting demons: a catastrophic series of events has undermined all prospect of happiness. Trauma leaves her no alternative but to bury herself in the austere asceticism of a community that wakes at 4am, doesn’t permit eye contact, let alone speech, and keeps men and women strictly segregated. But the curious self dies hard. Conflicted and wayward, Beth stumbles on a diary and cannot keep away from it, or the man who wrote it. And the more she yearns for the purity of the retreat’s silent priestess, the more she desires the priestess herself. The Server sets western individualism against the Buddhist belief that what we call ‘self’ is insubstantial fantasy. Unsure of anything but pain and pleasure, Beth’s constant invention and destruction of herself and the people around her is both riveting and highly entertaining.
A confession of favouritism: I love Tim Parks’ essays and book reviews. He’s an original journalist and a master of short form nonfiction. Nevertheless, I hadn’t read any of his novels before The Server. I was particularly curious, not just because of how good Parks’ prose normally is, but because The Server, in the author’s own words, is a ‘companion novel’ – something which seems to me might also be called a novel-about-something-I’ve-already-written-about.
The backstory: in 2011, Parks published a book entitled, Teach Us To Sit Still, about his experiences as a volunteer at a strict meditation retreat. The Server revisits those experiences, but using the vehicle of fiction, presumably, to go places that nonfiction could not. So why would a brilliant author – one who has demonstrated in essays and reviews just how well he understands the techniques of writing – publish a novel about a meditation retreat only a year after publishing a work of non-fiction about the very same thing? I was curious.
The narrator of The Server is Beth Marriot, a young woman who has turned her back on a fast life of live music, boyfriends and high times. She could have been a star, we’re told. At the Dasgupta Institute, however, sex, smoking and all the other fun stuff are forbidden. Beth wakes at 4am to clean toilets and prepare food.
Of course, as will seem obvious to every hedonistic, egoistic Western reader under the sun (myself included), this is not sustainable. The novel begins when, after eight months of austerity, Beth breaks one of the rules of the Dasgupta Institute and begins writing. She writes about her past, her frustrations, the man whose room she has begun breaking into in order to read his diary, and Mi Nu Wai, the ethereal teacher with whom she is becoming obsessed …
Tim Parks proves that there are some things that cannot be said without a story.
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