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.