Sunday, May 20, 2012

Great book on village life in Italy: Tim Parks' Italian Neighbors

Tim Parks' Italian Neighbors: An Englishman in Verona
i just spent the 2nd half of an unusually rainy May Sunday in Rome reading a fantastic book about village life in Italy. It was written by my 2nd favorite writer-about-Italy-with-the-last-name Parks, Tim Parks, an Englishman who has expatriated to Italy. (2nd, of course, to Tiffany Parks of The Pines of Rome and Where Magazine.)

Tim Parks tells the story of his and his wife's integration into the community of Montecchio, a village near Verona, in the Veneto region of Italy, over the course of just more than a year. The book is pretty fantastic. It takes us right into the lives of people (and types of people) that i would otherwise surely never come to know.

i was a little struck at first to think that. i mean, i also am an English-speaking foreigner living in Italy. But, i am in Rome, the capital. i am surrounded mostly by non-Italians most of the time. Parks instead gets right down into it, living in a small, apparently not-quite-remarkable village, surrounded entirely by not just Italians, but small town Italians - quite a different animal than the ones i encounter in the capital. These people in the book will also not resemble any Italian you have ever met anywhere else in the world - these are the Italians that don't emigrate and that mostly don't travel (as described in the book.)

In fact, after a couple early chapters made it seem almost, though not quite, as if he was really hating on the whole region and community, Parks sums up the love-hate relationship a foreigner is likely to have with Italy while living here like this:
"Am I giving the impression that I don't like the Veneto? It's not true. I love it. I'm going to tell you some wonderful things about it. When I've finished, I hope you'll be wishing you'd been here too, at least for a little while. But like any place that's become home, I hate it too. And, of course, you can't separate the things you love and hate: you can't say, let's move to so and so where they have the cappuccini, the wines, the lasagna, the marvellous peaches, the handsome people in handsome clothes, the fine buildings, the close-knit, friendly secretiveness of village life, but not, please, the howling maltreated hunting dogs, the spoilt adolescents on their motorini, the hopeless postal service, the afa. You can't do it. It's a package deal."       (p. 18)
i relate to this very much living in Rome, even if the objectss of the love and hate are very different.

Parks is showing us here the real Italia that exists, physically on the planet, instead of the Italy that exists only in our foreigners' minds (to borrow a delineation from Beppe Sevegnerini), and it is fascinating and entertaining. Specifically, Parks does the best job of any writer i've read at describing two very Italian phenomenon:

1. The incredible, glaring "profound schizophrenia, which is also the charm, of all matters Italian: the Pope adored and ignored, the law admired and flouted, politicians despised and reelected." (p. 310) He indicates that Italians are culturally Catholic, no matter what their actual religion or spiritual beliefs are:
"There is a magical duplicity about Italians. I'll never get used to it. You think they're superstitious bigots, but then they're more open-minded than you are. None of them would ever have criticized Christ for plucking his ears of corn on the Sabbath. It's as if they're a nation of Protestants, or even free-thinkers, who just happen to be deeply attached, for reasons of style and aesthetics, to the Catholic way of worship. Because they appreciate its richness. It fills their lives." (p. 237)
(Though i disagree with him a bit here - many Italians would have criticized Christ for working necessarily on the Sabbath, BUT the vast majority of them would have done so themselves. That's key - just because something is criticized in others does not at all mean the critics won't do it!)

This is a country that typically has both Fascists and Socialists (and Communists) represented in their Parliament! Etc. There really is a constant self-contradiction here and Parks did a great job describing it throughout the book.

2. Our foreign inability to understand whether what we observe here is pathetic and backwards or actually wise and reasoned. One amusing example is when he describes a tv news broadcast of Italian sailors being sent to a UN mission in Beirut. The camera zooms on one adult sailors face and we see him cry and yell for his mother. "In a way it's wonderful, this lack of shame." (p. 293) Also, at the beginning of the book he describes the ridiculous fuss and importance surrounding bottling one's own prosecco, but by the end of the book he's learned more about it, is doing it himself, and suddenly appreciates what he'd ridiculed in the past..

The writing throughout is strong and lucid. In fact today as i read i paused a moment to try to remember which movie a scene i had in my mind had come from. Then i realized it was actually a mental image i had created about a week earlier, conjured from Parks' writing - quite impressive from any writer, but especially one working in on fiction.

His description of his neighbors and their customs was fascinating and gripping, his understanding of Italian bureaucracy and laws is, i am very confident, unparalleled among non-Italian,s and he gives it all to us in a tone that is absolutely pleasant and engaging.

Also, the book is certainly not at all bilingual, but there is more than a small smattering of Italian words and phrases throughout it, only some of which is translated, which makes it especially pleasing for those of us that are bilingual:-)

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