Thirty years ago, Tim Parks moved from London to Italy. As a writer until recently mired in the midlist, he admitted that he didn’t want to watch “the rise of the Amises and McEwans” in more detail than strictly necessary. He has written 15 novels, but his breakthrough came with a nonfiction work, “Teach Us To Sit Still,” in which he bemoaned, among other stress-making bedevilments, his compulsion to narrate. But that compulsion produced voluminous notes chronicling his travails on Italian railways, so “Italian Ways” takes its place among Parks’ warts-and-all snapshots of the country.
Railways were important in the unification of Italy, an effort still ongoing in this nation of city states. So the new generation of high-speed trains is advertised as being “for a more united Italy.” Tickets, at least on the slower trains, are supplied cheap as a social service. Railways are also embedded in the national psyche in that Italians are big commuters: they like to stay where they were born, and will commute rather than up sticks. Superficially then, the railway is a benign force in Italy. But the trains are in essence government-run, and Parks presents Italy as a country in which life is an endless series of tussles with the begrudged incubus of the state. As a lover of trains and a commuter between Milan and Verona, Parks finds himself a regular combatant.
Be warned. In the early part of this book, Parks vents his commuting grievances with all the ferocity and paranoia of any “disgusted of Tunbridge Wells,” albeit with better style and more black humor. He is vexed by the discrepancy between the streamlined facade of Italian railways and the bathetic complications lurking beneath.
“There is a general perception that the Italian way of doing things, particularly in the public sector, is sloppy and slow … hence an enormous effort must be made to work against the Latin grain and emulate a Teutonic punctuality.” Parks finds the discrepancy manifest in the way a station announcer will proudly list the destinations of an express before sadistically adding “soppresso,” meaning: “What I have just said does not apply. Today, that train will not run.” He sees it in the automated instruction that people should spread out along the platform to facilitate ease of boarding — an instruction often echoing over the head of a single waiting traveler.
He notes the way grandiose regulations contain so many loopholes and vagaries, as though to encourage the national sport of arguing, and he relates a genuinely harrowing screaming match between himself and a capotreno (train captain) about whether a PDF file on a laptop counted as a printout of a ticket.
The early part of the book is set on the modern, bleary, early morning trains of northern Italy. The landscape, glimpsed through the sealed windows of expresses, is presented anti-romantically: “A tiny vineyard, just three rows of a dozen vines each, is choked between two cathedral-sized warehouses of prefabricated concrete panels.” Yet there are hints of a society more cohesive than our own (if the ticket clerk is slow, it will be because he is asking solicitous questions about a customer’s family), and of a superior railway glamour. The capotreni wear smart green uniforms and braided caps. On-board service of refreshments is announced with a tinkling bell (as was done on the more stylish British express the Golden Arrow). But it is in the second half of the book, when Parks heads south, that the armchair traveler gets the full hot, fragrant blast of Italy.
The train to Otranto has orange curtains “which look wonderful when the windows are open all along the carriage, and they flap about in the hot, dry air.” Sometimes, the trains are amusingly antiquated, and Parks sees dusty engines “lined up among palm trees in giant pots as if in some episode of Thomas the Tank Engine where the locomotives get to take an exotic holiday.” They still have compartment carriages in the south, and “sooner or later, in a compartment, you just have to talk.” So Parks is asked where he is “actually from” because he hasn’t quite convinced his fellow travelers that he’s Italian: “London,” he says, and “in the compartment the two dull syllables … sound like distant gunshots.” Parks employs a low-key, if propulsive style, making such linguistic detonations all the more striking. In Palermo, he stays in a hotel “run by a couple who might have been a Sicilian Norman Bates and his mamma, moving in a crepuscular, mahoganied light among dusty crucifixes and ceramic madonnas.”
The book becomes more expansive in these southern passages, and we see Parks lying on beaches, drinking wine in piazzas, but always thinking about Italian railways and what they mean.
With Paul Theroux apparently winding down, there might be an opening for Parks as a new laureate of international railways, but the intensity of this book suggests that he will not be averting his rapt gaze from Italy any time soon.