Pieta’s narrator, Jim, is helping to care for his dying mother at home. Over the course of watching and waiting for the end, he reminisces much about the past and discusses it with his mother – in her lucid moments, his wife, his sister and the eldest of his young daughters. In the past, and perhaps also in the present, it is Jim’s father who emerges as the central figure. He is certainly the most vividly drawn character in the story, a mercurial personality who is at times as arbitrarily cruel as any patriarch, including the supersize version in the sky.
And on that score, when we learn that Jim’s father has worked obsessively on a stone Pieta (he’s a stone mason and a sculptor) we might expect this to be a primarily religious novel. Well, the subject of God and of the afterlife do arise, but not really any more than one might expect, considering the circumstances. Rather, the story is about family life. Thus the conflict between the generations, marriage, and marriage breakdown (Jim is separating from his wife), and sibling rivalry are all explored here.
I found Jim a curious character. A painter – he not only works in fewer dimensions than his sculptor father but seems less solid. He is and remains an onlooker, who lived through his parents as a child, rather than the other way round. And now that his father is dead and his mother dying, what does the future hold? He decides that his life will be given meaning solely by his daughters. Well, he’s not a true artist then – they’re far more selfish than that. But actually, Jim’s self abnegation is rather unsettling and this, I think, is precisely because it is so common in real life. We expect the heros and heroines of fiction to do far more than efface themselves in daily routines of childcare for years on end. But in fact, apart from the criminal and the political classes, examples of unremitting individualism are rare. Under the surface in even the well-preserved middle-aged person, the ego has usually been replaced by the parental instinct.
Mr Zink notes that Jim’s mother was once as young, beautiful and as life-enhancing for her parents as his daughter is now for him. She too will grow old and fade. Living for someone else, by implication, is therefore merely a temporary solution to the question of – why live? Like I said, the obvious alternative – faith in God – is not as seriously considered in Pieta as one might expect. Perhaps a higher meaning to life is afforded by art? After all, Jim’s father has spent a good portion of his earthly existence refining a sculpture (albeit religious in subject). On this score, however, Jim recalls his father growing tired of his work one day and quitting suddenly to play with his grandchildren. On examining the sculpture more closely, Jim finds that his father has just defaced it.
And so, let down by his father on every level, deserted by both wife and mother and placing any hope of personal happiness in the capricious hands of his offspring, Jim turns out to be a poignant figure, sadder really even than his dying mother, who still seems to have a fuller, if stranger existence. I’m not sure whether I was meant to, but I felt sorry for him.
A large part of Pieta consists of dialogue, much of which takes place between Jim and his young daughter, for whose benefit the tragic aspects of adult life are couched in simplistic language. It’s done very well, though really, it’s not so much to my taste. On the other hand, I found the description of place and character drawing very enjoyable. Mr Zink is especially deft at putting living flesh on Jim’s mother and father. A fine piece, and worth investigating.