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

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Labour MPs believe Jeremy Corbyn is incapable of tackling anti-Semitism

The leader's insistence that "there's no crisis" has led more to conclude that he must be removed.  

In a competitive field, yesterday was the most surreal - and shameful - day for Labour since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. After a telling delay, Corbyn arrived at the only response that was acceptable to MPs: the suspension of Ken Livingstone. The former mayor of London, who appears incapable of entering a studio without triggering outrage, surpassed himself by claiming Hitler supported Zionism (as if to invalidate the latter). In time-honoured fashion, he then responded to criticism by pouring petrol on the fire. In remarks that caused journalists to question their hearing, Livingstone opined that "a real anti-Semite doesn't just hate the Jews in Israel". 

Two hours later, one of Corbyn's greatest allies was finally suspended (the day after Naz Shah MP had been). But the announcement itself added new offence. The email confirming Livingstone's suspension simultaneously revealed that John Mann MP, who had denounced the former mayor as a "Nazi apologist", had been summoned by the chief whip to "discuss his conduct" - as if their behaviour was somehow comparable. Labour sources later told me that Corbyn's office had wanted to go further and suspend Mann - a demand flatly rejected by the whips. Their resistance has revived the desire among some of the leader's allies for a cull in a future reshuffle. 

But it was Corbyn's conduct in a BBC interview that truly provoked MPs' fury. "It's not a crisis, there's no crisis," he declared, unwittingly echoing the Sun's headline on Jim Callaghan during the Winter of Discontent ("Crisis? What crisis?"). It was as if Hitlergate had never happened. Corbyn added that "the party membership is the biggest it has been in my lifetime" (it was actually higher in 1997) and that "much of this criticism that you are saying about a crisis in the party actually comes from those who are nervous of the strength of the Labour Party at local level". MPs, he appeared to suggest, were not motivated by a desire to repel Labour's anti-Semitic infection but by fear of the party's left-wing membership.

Livingstone's suspension was "very sad", Corbyn said, but "there is a responsibility to lead the party". The abiding impression was that he had suspended his old comrade with the utmost reluctance - it was the burden of office that had forced him to do so. Finally, Corbyn declared, as he always does on these too-frequent occasions, "we are not tolerating anti-Semitism in any way or indeed any other kind of racism." Labour's leader appears congenitally incapable of condemning Jew-hatred in insolation. The explanation, some MPs say, is that he subscribes to a "hierarchy of racism" under which anti-Semitism is a lesser offence than, say, Islamophobia. In rejecting a systematic focus on the former, Corbyn's critics say he is in denial about the scale and significance of the infestation.  

His apathy has intensified the desire of his opponents to remove him before the year is out. "The soft left moved massively today," one MP told me in reference to Labour's internal swing voters. Another said: "It does two things: it firmly pins responsibility for next week's results on the hard-left antics [Labour is forecast to become the first opposition since 1985 to lose council seats in a non-general election year] and it weakens the willingness of the 'core group' servers to keep mopping up after Corbyn because they are increasingly mortified by the association". But others disagreed: "It's strangely less likely," one said of the prospect of a challenge, "the mood is 'keep giving him the rope'". Another said that Labour MPs, traditionally sentimental towards their leaders, lacked the "constitution" for the struggle. "They can always find an excuse why now isn't the right time," he lamented. Without an agreed candidate, and without even agreement on whether there should be a challenge, Corbyn's opponents fear that "even worse is to come". 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.