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.

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.

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

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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In Bangladesh, bat in hand, I list all the things that could go wrong

Not everyone gets to play cricket in Bangladesh but I still managed to notch up more worries than runs.

Back from Bangladesh. I picked up a stomach bug while I was out there, and possibly a heart bug, about which I’d rather not go into any detail at the moment, but both will get better as time passes. Meanwhile, as I lie in my bed of pain (the nasty stuff has stopped but I’m still getting the occasional painful ache in the guts), I have my memories.

I must say it was very odd to be treated like royalty while I was out there. (For those who missed it: I was invited to participate in the Dhaka Literary Festival, and saw no reason to refuse, especially after being bought an exceptionally good dinner by the main organiser.) The democrat in me feels shifty even when I’m addressed as “sir” in shops in the UK, so when, one day, on entering the campus at the Bangla Academy, I was actually saluted by a military policeman, I was somewhat taken aback. I wonder if I will see that look in the soldier’s eyes until my dying day: alert, respectful, possibly a bit unhinged. Anyone saluting me must be a little off their rocker, but then how was he to know what a cock-up of a human being I am?

Still, it was extraordinarily pleasant. The highlight was, of course, the cricket match, in which I was invited to play for a scratch team of five from the Authors’ XI, plus two extra lads from the local college, or perhaps affiliated to the local team, the Khulna Titans, whose boss presented us all with caps. I’m wearing mine even as I write these words. I find it soothing.

At the time, though, I was feeling most unsoothed. I found myself going through a list of worries. I should point out that I often start to worry when I start descending the staircase to my own front door – and I was, at this point, roughly 5,000 miles from my front door.

So here are my top ten worries on the way to, during and after the match. I present them in chronological order of beginning to freak me out.

1) Getting shot by terrorists. (That police escort does make one stand out in a crowd, and this lot didn’t seem to be carrying any guns.)

2) Being bitten by one of the dogs lounging around the side of the pitch and having to make the choice between having a series of terribly painful rabies shots, or having rabies.

3) Being stung by a wasp or something on the field and going into anaphylactic shock.

4) Being hit in the mouth by a bouncer and having to go to a hospital to have my teeth crammed back in somehow.

5) Making a huge mow at a full toss not quite as outside the off stump as I’d suspected it was, and missing and being bowled by it.

6) Dropping a catch . . .

6a) . . . and having the ball slam into my mouth etc (see 4).

7) Getting sunstroke/sunburn.

8) Being bitten by a dragonfly, or a swarm of them, while on the pitch. There were loads of dragonflies, for some reason, but they were rather drab. Maybe they weren’t dragonflies, but they flew in the same manner.

9) Throwing the ball back to the keeper in an unmanly or generally disappointing fashion.

10) Being stuck in traffic on the way back for ever and ever, and so missing the event I was scheduled to chair later in the afternoon.

As it is, only number 5) transpired. And maybe a bit of 9). However, I at least made one rather streaky run and so am now able to make the hilarious joke that I have scored on the subcontinent. I marvelled at the state of the pitch: it looked like very fine-textured, pliable tar, or mud baked halfway to being a brick, but soft enough for the spikes on your boot to make a neat hole. Still, it was loads better than the poor neglected pitches at Dogshit Park in Shepherd’s Bush. And I thought of my father, who would have been strangely proud of me for having played in so far-flung a place, and wished that he was still around so he could hear my news.

And so back to London. I was greeted, as I stepped, in my summer linens, from the Heathrow Express at Paddington to the cab rank (I was too tired and sick for public transport), by a blast of chill rain, and shivered as I turned on the cab’s heater. Once again I seem to have fallen in love with a place new to me, and I begin to get indignant at the fact that the weather gets miserable in the UK.

There might be millions of poor people in Bangladesh, but not a single one of them is living in fear that one night they might freeze to death while sleeping out of doors. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage