More can be learned of a country’s character, often, from the way it makes bread or sardines than from its politics or administration. Tim Parks, whose literary and journalistic career has centered around his long residence as a teacher in Italy, has chosen Italian railroads to sketch a portrait of his adoptive country.
The result is uneven. Some parts cast a revealing though not especially new light on the Italian character; others go into tedious detail on station arrangements and the procedure for buying tickets. For long stretches the book reads like a distended magazine travel piece, leaving the reader with the suspicion that the project was padded with facts when ideas ran short.
On the other hand Parks, an English novelist, is at his best in writing about the scenes and people encountered over the years he spent commuting from his home in Verona to his university job in Milan; and on a long rail pilgrimage to southern Italy and Sicily.
Trains are big things — in themselves, I mean, and quite apart from their social and economic importance, considerable still in Europe, much less in the United States. The fed-up commuter may not consciously feel it, but there is a visceral moment as a train pulls in or we see it depart; when some part of us, childish no doubt, feels: Oh, so this huge thundering thing is in my personal service. I am heir to no small estate. We don’t feel that way with a car, a bus, an airplane. There was a time we felt it boarding a ship but that was when ships still went somewhere instead of just cruising in circles.
Parks describes the greetings, the talk, the daily sociable reunions of the various groups of students, businessmen, workplace colleagues on the 60-mile run from Verona to Milan. A movable feast to say the least; and at the greatest possible distance both from his buttoned-up, work-bound compatriots in Britain and the computer-glued workaholics on American commutes.
There is, as I say, far more about the different categories of Italian trains — from the shabby, crotchety inter-regional and intercity services to the dazzling Eurostar-type expresses — than a reader might want to know. (Although Parks notes a class rift here, with the government ensuring that it is possible for the working class to ride cheaply if uncomfortably, paying the lowest fares in Europe.) Certainly there is more than one might need about the ticket machines and information services; at once efficient and erratic.
Parks tells of the building of Italy’s railroad, owing to the country’s mountainous geography — a more formidable affair than anywhere else in Europe. The efficiency of the construction contrasts with the glitches in management, with gross and ruinous overmanning. He suggests that in a country whose unification brought together such millennially hostile states, the railroads were a major factor in overcoming the differences. Never completely, of course, as he remarks in perhaps the book’s shrewdest phrase:
“Italians are a people because the way they argue with each other is quite different from the way they argue with foreigners. It is their way of being together.”
Parks recounts his long and fiery foreigner’s argument with a ticket inspector over whether he’d bought a ticket; it was shown on his computer screen, but he had failed to print it out. The inspector insisted that a paper ticket was necessary; the two of them cited rule-book passages before an appreciative audience of other passengers, always prepared to enjoy a good argument, particularly one against a railroad official. (Parks sees in Italians’ ambivalent attitude toward the state railway and the Catholic Church a mix of resentment and need.)
He regrets the disappearance of compartments on the newer trains, which arrange seating in rows. It is the loss of a culture.
With his novelist’s gift he sets out life on the long train ride from Verona to Palermo. It is a human counterpoint, orchestrated by the cellphones each passenger is carrying.
There is, of course, the girl who endlessly reports just where the train is at. There is a monsignor discussing Vatican developments with another member of the Curia back in Rome. And there is the young man talking with his mother in Naples while announcing between these calls the end of the affair with his girlfriend back north. Not to be discarded, she keeps calling back. Not to be held, he keeps repeating his refusal. He does it not coldly, not harshly, not impatiently but with caressing indulgence. It is breakup as seduction. It is Italy.