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Tim Parks, an English expatriate living in Italy since 1981, offers a book that attempts to explain aspects of contemporary Italian life through the country's train system. He discusses his purpose to some Sicilians he dines with by saying, "I'm of the opinion that a culture... manifests itself entirely in anything the people of that culture do." Given the fact that he takes the train to work everyday, Parks decides to write about how Italian culture manifests itself through the train system.
The book is very well written and proved to be a quick read -- aside from some slow-moving meditations on timetables, station announcements, etc. (a lot of which might fall completely flat on a reader who has not been in Italy, or not frequently, since much of what he observes has changed over the past ten years). As other reviewers have remarked, the first half, largely comprised on observations made in Parks's home base in Verona/Northern Italy, is more complex and engaging, while the second half of the book, especially the sections regarding the south of Italy are a bit shoddier and feel almost forced. Some of the earlier chapters could stand on their own as self-contained essays, and I'd recommend them without hesitation. They are insightful and humorous.
The book's unevenness aside, there are larger problems. First, at its core, the book is an investigation of"national character," akin to what numerous Anglophone writers (primarily English, but also Americans) have done over the centuries with Italy (and other "exotic" lands) and even what an Italian, Luigi Barzini did as well back in the 1960s. For me, it's a dated endeavor, and I can't help but think of what my reaction would've been if Mr. Parks had been written about my culture, my hometown of New York City or my Italian American neighborhood. I would probably cringe, and say, no, that's not true; or, oh, yes, I can see that. But, ultimately, what purpose does such a book serve? And who does it serve?
Then there is the subject matter, the vehicle, if you will, to understanding this national character: trains. How they are organized, how stations are laid out, details about railway personal, etc. What happens on trains: who brings what to eat, how close people sit to one another, what people talk about, etc. Occasionally, Parks might remark on the passing landscape or interject an historic factoid. At times it can be repetitive, even boring. The sections that I enjoyed the most, the early ones, offered the richest, most layered telling of the story: history, landscape, station, train, people, etc.
Finally, there is Mr. Parks, the Englishman, the Anglo, the white man. Parks tells us repeatedly that he's been in Italy for 30 years (since his late 20s). He appears to have married an Italian woman, raised his children there, and been generally successful. But, his feathers are ruffled every time an Italian takes him for a foreigner, which they always do upon hearing his accented Italian, but even more annoying to him: they almost always know he's a foreigner (that is, an English/American/Canadian) just by laying eyes on him. Why he is irritated by this is baffling to me (and I have lived in other countries for extended periods, speak other languages, and grew up in a family of Italian immigrants who spoke broken English -- we all want to fit in, but we can rarely escape our roots, the places that formed us, nor would many of us want to). At times, he projects his sense of irritation with being the perpetual foreigner onto immigrants in Italy. He remarks in two or three places that there are no black ticket collectors, and looks forward to the day when the children of immigrants in Italy (in particular African immigrants) will be go through school to become railway workers. In these instances, the text is too thin, and glosses over so many complex issues facing Italy at the moment, not the least of which is a demographic change, whereby a country that was 30 years ago, entirely native-born (a place that people emigrated from, not immigrated to) to a country that has seen a foreign-born population grow from nothing to 10%. Parks doesn't give the reader much context here, and so one could easily mistake Italy's race problems with those of America or England, imagining they come from the same root. Here, the text is confusing and contradictory. The very things that Parks seems to dislike about Italy are inextricably linked to the things he seems to love: its provincial mentality, its strong local cultures, its dialects/languages, its traditions, familial ties and friendships, the weight of its history, etc. Parks appears to love all this, remarks on numerous occasions that such things have died out -- if they even ever were -- in England and in much of continental Europe. It's usually precisely those places with strong local cultures that seem to attract expatriates, often privileged folks who wish to partake of that which they never had, namely a strong community with "colorful" customs. Such is what distinguishes the expatriate from the immigrant; the former is drawn to a place because of its culture, while the latter seeks primarily to earn a living and may go anywhere to do so.
In the end, as it is with so many books about "national characters" or books about one's adopted lands, we ultimately learn more about Parks, his system, his character, and his prejudices than we do about the Italian people, north to south, or of the country's rail system. He's not a bad guy by any stretch of the imagination, and a few off-handed remarks aside, he does write lovingly about Italy. While not a wasted endeavor, the book is easily recommended to some already well-aquatinted with Italy, but to others who are curious about the landscape, the people, the history, the language, or the contemporary challenges, I would suggest looking elsewhere.