Italian Ways by Tim Parks: In Italian train stations, the spirit of Kafka is at work

The author of a trilogy of studies on Italy, Tim Parks always keeps his ear to the ground, looking for the telltale nuance, the occluded revelation of national character.

Milano Centrale.
Italian routes: A train arrives into Milano Centrale. Photograph: Getty Images.

Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo
Tim Parks
Harvill Secker, 288pp, £16.99

“How is it,” wonders Tim Parks, “that Italians always know I’m not Italian, even before I speak to them?” The author of a trilogy of studies – Italian Neighbours, An Italian Education and A Season with Verona – ought to know the answer to that one. In any given situation – at the café, in the football stadium, on the train – Parks is the one with his ear to the ground, listening for the telltale nuance, the occluded revelation of national character.

Unlike most Italophiles, Parks has always allowed himself to ironise much of what he not only observes but is obliged, by the need to make money and bring up children, to participate in. In a pair of comedic romps he wrote early on, he chronicled the efforts of a penniless English-language teacher to ingratiate his way into a rich Veronese family while systematically offing its members. No need to consult Freud.

But, however hard he finds it to suppress his disappointment – at the country’s gift for obfuscation, for generating absurdity – Parks loves and marvels at the place. His books gawp admiringly at the ritual comfort with which Italians can say one thing and do another – lionise the family, for example, while volunteering for a one-child policy or worship at the altars of God and Mammon like the Renaissance bankers in Parks’s Medici Money. “This is a nation,” he writes, “at ease with the distance between ideal and real. They are beyond what we call hypocrisy. Quite simply they do not register the contradiction between rhetoric and behaviour. It’s an enviable mindset.”

A mix of profound familiarity and lingering incredulity is what makes Parks such a pleasing travel companion as he embarks once again on a tour of the peninsula. Parks’s latest is a study of the country as seen through the prism of rail travel. Italian Ways sounds like a book with tunnel vision and even a bit of a return journey, given how much travelling he did in his book about supporting the local football team (A Season with Verona). It is anything but.

Having commuted for years between Verona and Milan to teach students to translate, Parks knows his way around the Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane. This is a state-owned concern very much in the (loss-making) business of underpinning everything that makes Italy Italian. The railways are monumentally in debt, overmanned and grappling with the impossible task of weaning Italians off historical entitlements. Parks meets all manner of people on the train: one bravura passage finds him in a compartment on a long ride to Sicily, listening in like a highly attuned anthropologist. Among the archtypes are, as ever, the furbo and the pignolo – the trickster and the stickler – who here continue their eternal co-dependence like characters from the commedia dell’arte.

In the stations, Parks watches the spirit of Kafka at work: the senseless fines, the English words (“fast ticket”, “Intercity”, “smart” class), the pompous efforts to modernise, the prolix train announcements as unreliable as any fictional narrator. “Italy is not a country for beginners,” he warns, after navigating a bureaucratic labyrinth to buy a season ticket.

It’s only halfway through the book that Parks ventures south of the Po to Florence on a sleek, new, high-speed “arrow” train and, in the final third, he embarks on a tour of the sclerotic south. Italy’s two countries, divided by a common language, reveal themselves as he plummets towards Sicily, self-pitying and, as its residents all parrot, “abbandonata”. It has terrible trains. All of the south does. He spends much time on replacement coaches (the mode of transport for his great novel Europa), musing on Italy’s “eternal dilem - ma”: how to match up to its towering past and ignore the coming cataclysm.

Parks’s most penetrating study of his adoptive home remains An Italian Education, which explains the mollycoddling mamma, from whom all else flows. It may be less ambitious but Italian Ways is older and wiser. And, thanks to all that meditating he did in Teach Us To Sit Still, more peaceable – apart from the moment he loses it with a ticket inspector.

Like the best train journeys, you don’t want it to end (which it does in Milano Centrale with a wonderful belly laugh). Parks notes le coincidenze – the all-important connections – between train travel and reading. It’s a habit he welcomes in his fellow passengers, as it means they’re quiet. Happily, Italians on the move aren’t voracious bookworms; if they were, Italian Ways would not contain such multitudes.