Train­ing for an Ital­ian ex­pe­ri­ence

Ital­ian Ways

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Mal­colm Forbes

By Tim Parks Ran­dom House, 288pp, $34.95

‘ THE Ital­ians have made won­der­ful roads and rail­ways,’’ DH Lawrence pro­claimed in Sea and Sar­dinia. Al­most 100 years on, the con­ve­nience, ef­fi­ciency and plea­sure of­fered by the lat­ter is wryly ex­am­ined and eval­u­ated by writer and trans­la­tor Tim Parks. Ital­ian Ways is a chron­i­cle of Parks’s many trav­els with la fer­rovie ital­iane since swap­ping Manch­ester for Verona 32 years ago. We ac­com­pany him on his com­mute from Verona to his work in Mi­lan, and then on hol­i­days south through the coun­try, end­ing up in Si­cily. Parks con­curs with Lawrence in the main, his jour­neys par­tic­u­larly won­der­ful when he is left undis­turbed with a good book; but Ital­ian Ways is at its best when its author is fault-find­ing, sidelin­ing breezy trips for bumpy rides and rail­ing against the more far­ci­cal com­po­nents that make up mod­ern Ital­ian life.

The first part is a per­fect blend of the rough and the smooth. Parks speeds through stun­ning scenery in rel­a­tive com­fort but also must wres­tle with poorly de­signed sta­tions, cus­tomer-un­friendly rail staff and the labyrinthine com­plex­i­ties of ticket buy­ing. PA sys­tems an­nounce delays per un pe­ri­odo in­de­ter­mi­nato. Fines are doled out for trav­el­ling on cheaper In­ter­city trains with a more ex­pen­sive Eurostar ticket. We share Parks’s vex­a­tion and at times don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Part two takes us to Florence

and

is in­ter­larded with more his­tor­i­cal facts than per­sonal anec­dotes. Choice nuggets re­veal it was from Verona — in­deed from the plat­forms Parks rou­tinely uses — that Jews were shipped to Auschwitz; and that in 1840 Pope Gre­gory XVI con­demned the rail­ways as the work of Satan. At times the dec­o­ra­tive in­ci­den­tal de­tail is as fas­ci­nat­ing as the main pic­ture be­ing de­scribed: Mi­lan’s Stazione Cen­trale con­tains Fas­cist friezes; cheaper, slower, badly ser­viced night trains go by the po­etic moniker treni di sper­anza (trains of hope).

Un­til this point Parks has used train travel as a means to ex­plore ev­ery­thing from Italy’s byzan­tine bu­reau­cracy to its many so­cial prob­lems (step­ping over and around the hordes of dis­pos­sessed hawkers and beg­gars to board a first-class car­riage). It is a travel book but one that is more con­cerned with the ac­tual trav­el­ling than the des­ti­na­tions. How­ever, in the third and fi­nal part Parks veers off, switches track and gives us a trav­el­ogue on the south, what is for him vir­gin coun­try. That he has never vis­ited be­fore is, he ad­mits, a ‘‘ dis­grace’’, adding it was ‘‘ a con­spir­acy of the north that had held me back’’. Italy’s heel and his chug around Si­cily yield one unan­tic­i­pated de­light af­ter an­other and Parks’s clear-eyed ob­ser­va­tions and witty com­men­taries help pull lo­cal colour into sharp fo­cus.

Ital­ian Ways re­sem­bles other ti­tles in Parks’s non­fic­tion for its abil­ity to tran­scend its sub­ject mat­ter (trains) and tap into the Ital­ian psy­che — if not to ra­tio­nalise it, then at least to scru­ti­nise it. In ear­lier books such as Ital­ian Neigh­bours (1992), An Ital­ian Ed­u­ca­tion (1996) and A Sea­son with Verona (2002), Parks dealt with, re­spec­tively, set­tling down in Italy, grap­pling with its school sys­tem and fol­low­ing its football — but not solely. For

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