Italian Ways by Tim ParksTuesday 24 Sep 2013
Publisher: Harvill Secker, hardback
Manchester-born Tim Parks has lived in Italy since 1981 and has written a number of well-received books about his adopted country in the years since. In his latest account from Italy -whose subtitle is On and Off The Rails From Milan to Palermo - the writer tackles the trains he knows so well.
Accordingly, his reader will instinctively trust the word of a commuter more than a tourist, it hardly needs saying. Parks commutes from Verona to Milan - he teaches at the university in the latter city – in the course of his working week. This wittily acerbic observer devotes the first three chapters to the journey he knows best - Verano-Milano, Milano-Verona, the matter of chapters one and two respectively. Indeed he returns to the Verona-Milano line in the third chapter.
Interestingly, every September as the academic year is about to commence, he must apply for a so-called Nullaosta. Signed by the rector of the university, this piece of paper declares that nothing prevents the writer and teacher from working in Milan while living a hundred miles away in Verona. 'What on earth could prevent me,' the writer asks himself - `Only Trenitalia, the railways,' comes his wry reply.Yet he admits that he travels back and forth betweeen both cities at `extraordinary speeds and with remarkable punctuality.'
A colleague wisely advised him not to ignore the annual travel-and-residence request. `That was many years ago, in the nineties. I was innocent then. It was explained to me that in Italy a formality is a sort of dormant volcano. It might seem harmless for years, then suddenly blow your life away.'
Most of his encounters are tranquil and unruffled, but Parks has an argument with a train inspector about a ticket which the commuter insists is valid as a pdf on his laptop. He goes into the niceties of the various types of tickets and flexi- tickets, the credit card reservations, the surcharges. He is too punctilious and teacher-like on that subject - Paul Theroux, surely the master of contemporary train journey writing would dispatch the subject in a line or two.
Yet one entire paragraph from Parks explains something about ticket flexibility that this writer frankly couldn’t actually follow or care about anyway. The paragraph bossilly begins: 'To recap, then. .' Just as Theroux customarily refers back to earlier writers about the places he travels through, Parks consults George Gissing and Norman Douglas. Both travelled through Italy by train over a century ago.
A couple of rudimentary, useful maps help the reader orientate themselves, as the book devotes chapters to further journeys, aside from Parks' well-ironed commute. These are Milano-Firenze, Milano-Roma-Firenze, Crotone-Taranto-Lecce, and Lecce-Otranto. He hears much about Berlusconi, meets priests and prostitutes, scholars and lovers. Ultimately, his 260-page book reveals how the great rail network is an expression of the Italians' sense of themselves.