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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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.