A Season with Verona: travels around Italy in search of illusion, national character and goals, by Tim Parks

A season in hell with some gentlemen of Verona
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Hellas Verona football club are Italy's Millwall. No one likes them and they profess not to care, usually very loudly, but they see sinister machinations in every blow of the referee's whistle and policeman's baton. According to their biggest English fan, they are probably right.

Tim Parks, a novelist with the Somerset Maugham and Betty Trask awards in his trophy cabinet, has lived in Verona since the early 1980s. In his fiction, he seeks to cast a spell that allows contemplation of "all those things that are painful to us". That grounding gave him the tools he needed, last season, to chronicle Hellas's punishing struggle to remain among the élite of Serie A.

He wanted to make of this both a confessional depiction of that hopeless devotion to football with which the otherwise sane are cursed and an exploration of his adopted country's soul. Fortunately, this seamlessly layered book, expanded from a newspaper column, exhibits the sure hand of an essayist – another of his sidelines.

His guiding spirit is Giacomo Leopardi, whose 1821 poem "To a Winner with the Ball", kicks off conventionally, with sport standing in for war and sweated virtues surpassing effeminate indolence. But it changes course when Leopardi asks: "has human effort/ Ever been but a game? Is truth any less empty than falsehood?" In other words, since we are condemned to filling the emptiness of life with illusion, "football is as meaningful as anything ever will be. So go for it!"

Parks went for it home and away, on beery, smoky buses and trains, from Milan to Calabria, from the Veneto to Sicily. He was accepted immediately by Hellas's brigate of ultra-loyalists. Even when his project was outed by a group of fans styled The Maddest Ones, his comrades didn't blink. It was enough that he was prepared to suffer as they did: "Exasperation is of the essence in football."

It is surely no coincidence, he observes, that the Italian season stretches to 34 games, the number of cantos in Dante's Inferno. The Croatian winger Mario Cvitanovic remarks to him: "After every game, you are either in paradise or in hell."

This, Parks says, is what Italians want, "a constant alternation between trionfo and tristezza, triumph and sadness." The country is riven with divisions and contradictions: piety versus profanity; right versus left; the fat-cat north versus the yokel south. Parks tackles these dichotomies as Hellas's tortured season unfolds.

Perhaps the most contentious matter is racism. Though it is surely a case of scapegoating, the city of Verona tends to be castigated as Italy's staunchest outpost of opposition to multiculturalism. The book opens against the backdrop of a massive investigation into the apparently racist treatment of a Jewish lecturer.

Over the season come the first attempts to stamp out monkey sounds from the terraces towards black players. In fact, the loyalists of the Hellas brigate, one suspects, are no more or less racist than any football crowd – if more passionate than most.

Perhaps, though, Parks's mission goes beyond the mining of Italian character and into the realms of the spiritual. He explains the Italian passion for politics thus: "For those who have grown out of religion but haven't yet learnt to enslave their minds to something spectacular and harmless like football, political causes have become the only respectable object of those we once associated with the sacred." We think we're passionate about football, but it is difficult to imagine a more potent mixture of feelings coursing through the veins of even a diehard Rangers fan.

So the book functions well as a primer of Parks's philosophy of life and football; and it is difficult to think of a better first-person account of a season in hell, besieged by brutal policemen and cheated by corrupt officialdom. As the season reaches a climax, the iniquities of a system designed to favour the rich and powerful clubs induce feelings of extreme violence even in Parks. But the reader is left with the feeling that this season, he is still there with the Hellas brigate.