TONY PARSONS — MAN AND BOY — 1999
A love story of a completely different type, maybe unexpected, and it has not aged more than one single iota in the nearly twenty years that have elapsed since publication. It was adapted to television by and for the BBC. This iota has to do with the father’s attitude toward not getting primary residence for his son. Today courts are a lot more open on the question and some real sharing can be envisaged.
But what makes this book special to the point of being translated into thirty languages? A lot of elements could be listed. I will just give a few.
First the center piece of the novel is a young couple with a four year old child. The wife has sacrificed a career that she had never started to her family, a family that is so nuclear that she becomes a zombie from such nuclear fallout. Note even after six months of trying having such a career she will come back to the mould, request primary residence for her son and that will be it with maybe a second child later on with the new husband. As for the mother the book has tremendously aged. But back to the story line. She picks the first pretext she can find to run away. An easy task since boys will be boys and men will be men: they cannot escape the curse of the knob, as the husband Harry calls it, that makes them masculine. They have to rub it and to dip it into the first sheath available.
Then the story centers on this man and his son. Harry learns how to take care of his son Pat. He becomes a single parent father. And he is successful at it. And yet the boy misses something. Guess what. The mother is in Japan having her own life with some Richard American expat, or something like that since it is not important who he is, his name, his position. He is just the man this frustrated woman picks to step back down into nuclear frustration. Poor Pat, and he is not the postman.
Third, the author doubles this picture with a second mirror image, hence inverted which makes thing “normal” meaning straight. A woman, Cyd, an expat from Texas who has kicked her British BMW motorbike monster of a husband out of her immediate life and lives with her/their four year old daughter Peggy. Poor Peggy who is also missing something, a father probably. This makes the film utterly moralistic as for the definition of the parents of a child. There is no same sex marriage and no children with two fathers or two mothers, and children with single parents are seen as victims. A child has to have two parents and these have to be a man and a woman. Full stop! No question asked, hence no question answered. At the very end, in a club, there is a vague mention of gay men, but it sounds like some frustration on the part of the main character.
Fourth. With that stuff the author makes a novel that is definitely new with some novel (new and not resembling something formerly known or used) ideas. It is true a lot less novel today. He now centers the novel on the father first and his efforts at becoming a true loving father and at providing his son with a new mother and a sister, Cyd and Peggy. But Cyd and Peggy are running away from such a choice, at least Cyd is, and Peggy follows. Pat just makes a new friend, but this time a boy whose identity is meaningless, except that we go back into a cliché: a boy with a boy, girls are for later.
Yet the author avoids the soap opera with tears and whining mice and rats inter-devouring one another. Just one episode is important for the story: the relation of Pat with the parents of his father. The grandfather plays a role and particularly when he dies of cancer. The boy Pat at the age of five discovers death in a man he likes. Yet that loss is not exploited beyond the plain anecdote. For a child this age such an event is a trauma, and cannot be anything but a trauma. She child may be deeply disturbed, especially if he does not seem to be really shocked because he should. But of course it would have been another novel. So why introduce this death if it is not exploited? There is absolutely no reason why this grandfather has to die in this novel. It does not change the course of events at all, at least for the child. The novel at least avoids that possibility. So why mention the anecdote.
Sixth. This death provides the “end” of the novel, but not in the child Pat, rather in the child Harry, because at this moment the father regresses to what he used to be as a child and he is deeply hurt, shocked and transformed by this death. Not on his own but thanks to the mother who has a tremendous power of adaptation. Harry’s mother goes through the funeral, survives her solitude and confides her secret to her surprised son. “Love means knowing when to let go.” Love then becomes a deep emotion that never leaves the one who lets go and it becomes the deepest inspiration for the one who goes, who is let to go, in this case Pat who is let to go by his father Harry. The book though does not seem to see the difference between letting go a dead man into death and letting go a child into a recomposed family. But I guess such contradictions are part of the genre. And the father drops all desire to get primary residence for his son and he lets the son’s mother and her recomposed family have it. Note the child becomes then a pure possession.
This is heavily emphasized by the reference to the film “Cinema Paradiso” (Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, 1988) by Giuseppe Tornatore. Harry sees the film in a cinema with Cyd and the author summarizes it slightly skimpily:
“. . . an Italian film . . . about a young boy’s friendship with the old projectionist at the local movie house. . . at the end when the gruff old projectionist, now blinded by a fire in the cinema, tells the Bambi-eyed young boy, now a teenager, to leave their village and never come back. The boy, Toto, goes away and becomes a famous film director and doesn’t come back to his little village for thirty years, on the day that they are burying Alfredo, the old projectionist who taught him to love the cinema and then sent him away. . . Because Alfredo knew that Toto would never find the things he needed in that little town. . . He had to break free so that he could learn what Alfredo already knew Life is not what you see in films — life is much harder. [dixit Cyd]” (p. 257–258)
I regret the skimpiness of this summary because it misses absolutely everything important about the son Pat, because it cuts out Toto’s dead father, Toto’s sister nearly killed by a fire in the cinema, Toto’s mother, the two fire incidents in the cinema, the rebuilding of this cinema, Toto’s love affair with Elena, a rich man’s daughter, etc. In fact the film should have led the novel into another direction, but life is not what it looks like in films. Surely it is not, but the cinema teaches us great ideas and truths that life at times forgets to teach us and here the main idea is that Salvatore (Toto) has no father, needs a father substitute and finds one in Alfredo the projectionist. Toto is fascinated by the cinema (as an art and communicational medium) but his sister nearly dies in a fire in that local cinema (as a plain building that is inflammable). And Toto needs this father substitute to tell him: “OK, boy, it is time for you to go and realize your dream, live your life!” But Alfredo cheated in a way, and yet Salvatore would never have realized his dream of becoming a film director if Alfredo had not cheated and had not decided to lose a friend in order for that friend to become what his potential made him capable of becoming, and that future man will be able to hyg Alfredo on his deathbed if not in his coffin. To expand this theme let me quote the full synopsis of the film as given by the users of IMDb.
“Beginning at the end, the movie opens with Salvatore’s mother trying to inform him of the death of Alfredo. Salvatore, a filmmaker who has not been home since his youth, leaves Rome immediately to attend the funeral. Through flashbacks we watch Salvatore in his youth, in a post WWII town in Southern Italy. As a young boy he is called Toto and he has a strong affinity for the cinema. Toto often sneaks into the movie theater when he shouldn’t and harasses the projectionist, Alfredo, in attempts to get splices of film that are cut out by the church because they contain scenes of kissing. Toto has a younger sister and war widowed mother who often struggle due to the loss of Toto’s father.
Toto is banned from the movie theater by his mother when his film bits accidentally catch fire and nearly kill his sister along with burning up the only picture Toto has of his father along with other family photographs.
Eventually he sneaks his way back and forms a father-son bond with Alfredo, despite Alfredo’s reluctancy, Toto even learns how to run the projector. Meanwhile one of the townspeople wins the lotto and becomes a rich man. One day in the cinema, after Toto leaves to watch the movie with his friends below, the film catches fire in the projector and knocks Alfredo out. Young Toto rescues Alfredo from death in the fire, unfortunately the cinema burns down and Alfredo loses his sight.
Lucky the lotto-lucky-townsman pays to have a new cinema put up. Since Toto already knows how to run the projector he works with Alfredo in the projection room.
Some years pass and Salvatore is now a young man. A rich girl, Elena, comes to town and Salvatore and his friends vie for her attention. Salvatore films her and begins to fall in love. Alfredo advises him to steer clear of love because it only causes pain. Despite his warning, Salvatore confesses his love to Elena, whose reply is that she does not, but she could. So he waits, every night outside her house for her reply. One day he gives up and trudges home depressed and upset only to soon discover that Elena does love him in return.
They begin a passionate romance, like that of two newlyweds. Unfortunately, Elena’s father doesn’t approve and so he takes Elena away. All summer they try to meet, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. On one particular day he tries to reach her and she him but their paths don’t cross. As we discover later, Alfredo catches Elena and convinces her to leave Salvatore alone out of love. Salvatore then wanders without purpose and eventually joins the military due to the requirement by Italian law that all male youths serve for a period of time in the army.
When he returns to his home town, all has changed and he cannot adjust. Alfredo urges him to leave and tells him that if he were to ever return, he would not see him. Obviously Salvatore goes on to become a successful filmmaker. As he wanders the remains of his town after the funeral he sees a vision of Elena just as she was when they were young; he realizes it is Elena’s daughter and follows her to Elena’s home where he sees that she married one of Salvatore’s childhood friends, a dunce when Salvatore knew him. He confronts Elena and they meet.
They talk and she reveals to him that she didn’t miss out on their fateful reunion but rather that Alfredo convinced her to leave. Salvatore realizes what a role Alfredo had in shaping his life and that Alfredo knew that if he stayed with Elena he would have no chance to pursue his love of film and so by going to Rome to become a filmmaker he sacrificed his love for Elena.
Salvatore and Elena say farewell and go their separate ways. Salvatore returns to Rome with a can of film left to him by Alfredo. It contains all the splices of the kissing scenes from Salvatore’s youth.” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0095765/synopsis, accessed May 13, 2016)
You can now realize how much the author missed, how many opportunities he missed on the side of Harry as well as on Toto’s side. The fact that Harry had been invited by Cyd to see that film with her in Soho is also extremely meaningful and the summary Cyd gives is so far from what is relevant: desire is one thing but it has no future in itself whereas love is not desire and it is able to see beyond the emotion the interest of the loved one who has to move away on his or her own road to eventually fulfill his or her promise, potential, future. We have our future in our own mind and brain but our body’s desires may tie us up so strongly at crucial moments in our lives that we miss the train and we reach the station too late. If we are lucky we can see the red lights of the train moving away and maybe learn a lesson for next time we try to catch a train: don’t linger satisfying your bodily functions and rush after your spiritual potential. Life is cruel if you do not do the latter. Life is beautiful if you do. I thus dedicate this review to a young man who has been my assistant for seven years and has to go on his own road. Don’t miss your train in the name of what is good now. Your train will not wait for you.
Finally this novel has a happy ending for “everyone” though we could doubt the happiness of this ending but I won’t reveal it. It is good at times to run amok in a love story in modern garb, but please do not throw cobblestones on the pianist. He is only an entertainer.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU