Tim Parks is ideally suited to describing the customs and foibles of Italian ways. An Englishman, he has lived in Italy for 32 years; his wife and children are natives. But though deeply immersed in his adopted culture, he has retained the bemused gaze of the head-scratching outsider. In his two previous memoirs-as-sociological-portraits, he has isolated particular aspects of the society to puzzle out its idiosyncrasies. In the first, "Italian Neighbors," he looks at his neighborhood and friends; in the second, "An Italian Education," he considers child-rearing practices. In this new one, he teases out the national character through the history and his experience of the railroads, the ferrovie. Literally "ironways."
Building the rails, since 1839, has been more a political than an economic project. (The nationalized railroads have always lost money, which has led to all sorts of accounting tricks.) They had a major role in uniting the various Italian states into a nation. They are also head-spinningly difficult to negotiate, despite the author's heroic attempts to decipher the various bureaucracies, first for himself, now for readers. (And, common wisdom to the contrary, Mussolini did not make the trains run on time.)
There are fast trains, expensive and well-maintained, and slow, cheap, dilapidated trains used by students and workers. The ticket prices and various supplements are nearly impenetrable. Ticketing machines and manned booths are routinely far away from platforms. The machines require the (paid) assistance of roving gypsy children to operate. Sundays, nobody is in the booths, the machines frequently are jammed, yet you cannot get on the train without a ticket. Finally, after fruitless station dashes, Parks wises up and buys online, only to find himself chased off a train by an old-guard agent who insists on the old-fashioned paper ticket. Another agent insists he pay a fine because his ticket required him to go by way of one city rather than another and he took the slower route!
There are no signs, when he needs them, to the lost-package station. Even in the magnificent Milano Centrale, it is difficult to know where to go, for tickets or trains. There are dead-end passages, conveyor belts mysteriously leading to the right and left of the platforms; it's no use taking the three escalators because Italians, once on a step, will never move. Of course, a slow, simmering resentment builds in the dutiful passengers. This, Parks maintains, points up an important Italian emotion: "I am behaving well and suffering because of that. I am a martyr."
"But there was something deeper: this whole culture of ambiguous rules, then heated argument about them without any clear-cut result, seems to serve the purpose of drawing you into a mind-set of vendetta and resentment that saps energy from every other area of life. You become a member of society insofar as you feel hard-done by, embattled."
Parks writes about all this dysfunction in a relaxed, humorous, meandering style and also offers charming vignettes about some of his fellow travelers. But I won't be taking any Italian trains anytime soon.
Brigitte Frase is a book critic in Minneapolis.