Foreigners have never quite known what to make of Italy. For D H Lawrence and E M Forster, it was a place to cast off reticence and reserve. Earlier writers portrayed it as a graveyard, filled with noble dust and mouldering ruins. Henry James's Daisy Miller dies in Rome; the heroine of his later novel The Wings of the Dove fades away in Venice. James Joyce wrote "The Dead" in Trieste. More recently, it has become a barrel of cheap laughs for journalists to plunder at the expense of those crazy Italians.
The one constant is that there has never been a shortage of people wanting to go there. The journalist Tobias Jones emigrated to Parma in 1999. He expected to find a "sunny, celestial land", Shelley's "plane of light between two heavens of azure". The darker side that he discovered on his arrival is the subject of this book.
He starts with the beauty of the language - or, rather, the way it cuts two ways. No concept is too simple, no object too small to be glossed with a fine-sounding word or phrase. A bow tie, Jones tells us, is a farfalla, a butterfly. Cuff links are gemelli, twins. The same word - paese - describes both country and village, implying that solidarity exists as much on a local as a national level. He also notes how Italians use the words bello (beautiful) and brutto (ugly) in place of "good" and "bad", thereby conflating aesthetics and morality. Show is important. Jones quotes Luigi Barzini, on how this seemingly simple delight in words sometimes deceives: "Ugly things must be hidden, unpleasant and tragic facts swept under the carpet. Everything must be made to sparkle, a simple meal, an ordinary transaction, a dreary speech, a cowardly capitulation must be embellished and ennobled with euphemisms, adornments and pathos."
It is a peculiarly Italian kind of schizophrenia. The smiling face masks lacerating self-criticism. Again and again, friends refer to the Bel Paese as a brothel, a bloody "whore", a centuries-old tramping ground for foreign colonialists. The Italians' much-vaunted visual flair, demonstrated in their art and fashion, goes hand in hand with the despoliation of their coastline, which is blighted by illegal building. Footballers dive and foul shamelessly on the pitch, but behave impeccably off it. The humour veers between good-natured buffoonery and acid wit, while behind Italy's happy chaos crouches a hidebound bureaucracy that requires a certificate just to prove you exist.
In describing all this, Jones strikes just the right balance between history, anecdote and facts (none of which makes sense of the country's contradictions). The more you know about Italy, goes the saying, the less you understand.
The confusion, he discovers, is greatest in politics. Tags such as "fascist" and "communist", "right-wing" and "left-wing", are useless because politicians switch sides so often. The province of Emilia-Romagna, for example, has the highest per capita income in Italy and also the strongest communist support.
Inevitably, Jones's discussion of the current political scene focuses on Silvio Berlusconi. Accor-ding to Jones, Berlusconi is a new thing in Italian politics: a politician without an ideology. The new style of government, he says, "is simply about power and realpolitik . . . The culture is one of clientelismo, the habit of mutual back-scratching."
The sense that Big Brother is watching grows as you read. Since coming to power, Berlusconi has installed yes-men as heads of two of the three state television channels, while conveniently forgetting his pre-election promise to offload his own Mediaset empire within 100 days of taking office. He has decriminalised false accounting and changed the statute of limitations - the practice whereby a crime is no longer a crime after a certain period - from 15 years to seven and a half, protecting himself from nagging accusations of corruption. Jones sees the violence at the G8 summit in Genoa in 2001, in which one protester died, as a warning shot across the bows of troublemakers.
It's obvious where Jones's sympathies lie, but he is one of the lucky ones. Four years after arriving, he is still in love with Italy, perhaps because he knows he can always return to England. For some Italians, however, the state of their country is cause for despair. A friend, Marco, tells him: "You foreign journalists fuck me off. You come here and laugh at the farce, not realising that for us it is a tragedy. You come here with your British patriotism and laugh at us peasants before going back home. If you want to stay here, you mustn't laugh any more." To his credit, Jones has taken the advice and written a brilliant, though bleak, book into the bargain.
James Eve writes for the Times