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It is an ancient mariner......
on 5 July 2004
When I first came to live in Italy, five years ago, I was trapped at a dinner party by a man who told me that all Italian postmen were thieves. "Never order anything through the post, because it will automatically be stolen", he warned me. The reason, he explained in a hoarse whisper, was that all Italian postmen were Communists, and that they stole things from the mail as a mute expression of class warfare. I was horrified, but went on ordering books and CDs through the post. Five years and over a hundred mail-order deliveries later, I can happily say that I have never once experienced any serious problem with the Italian postal system. Everything that I have ordered has been delivered, often with amazing speed. The man I met at the party belonged to a particular type of Italian - male, deeply pessimistic, and convinced that modern Italy is a forum for the working out of intricate and baleful conspiracies. Italians such as this have been around since the Renaissance and the rise of the Italian city states. One soon learns to spot them and to avoid them - unless, that is, one actually likes being regaled by Ancient Mariner figures with a sinister tale to tell.
Mr Jones' problem is that he has never really escaped from the clutches of the Italian Ancient Mariners. He has an unfortunate weakness for listening to their tales and, worst of all, he tends to give the tales a credence that they don't always deserve. And my goodness how tedious his versions of some of the stories can be. Read his chapter on the bombing in Piazza Fontana in Milan in 1969 (much of it written in italics, for some unexplained reason), and you will find yourself as though trapped in the corner of a smoke-filled bar late at night, looking longingly at the exit while an Italian Ancient Mariner grips your arm and regales you a long and complicated rigmarole of political mystery and intrigue - a story, alas, that has long since lost its relevance to the everyday lives of people in the real world outside.
Mr Jones' dark heart of Italy is an alarming place of Dantean ghastliness. It is the Italy of corruption, pompous bureaucrats, bent magistrates, conniving policemen, self-serving politicians and, of course, Mr Berlusconi and his dreadful government. Much of what he says about these things is true. But there is another Italy, that lies beyond these horrors. This is the Italy of, for want of a better term, the common men and women - the millions of Italians who have to make their day-to-day lives through hard work, self-sacrifice and intelligent and tolerant compromise with their fellow human beings. Perhaps these people have the strongest claim to represent the real heart of Italy. They certainly deserve more mention and acknowledgement than they receive in this book.
This is not a bad book, but it's not a very good one, either. Anyone seeking a readable introduction to life in Italy would be far better advised to read the earlier books of Tim Parks. Those wanting a good historical background with political detail should look at Modern Italy by Denis Mack Smith and Italy and its Discontents, by Paul Ginsborg. One day, perhaps, someone will write a book called The Dark Heart of Britain. This might explain, amongst other things, why so many British people have chosen to make their permanent home in Italy, while so few Italians have elected to go in the opposite direction.