Harvill Secker £16.99

Review: Italian Ways - On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo, By Tim Parks

But did the trains ever run on time?

If you thought long ticket-office queues, Byzantine pricing structures, indecipherable announcements, and chronic under-investment were just a British railway phenomenon, Tim Parks's compelling new book would have you think again. Swaying on an intermediately priced, intermediately slow train between one Italian city and another, Parks (normally a novelist, and a long-time Italian resident) conveys a detailed, dense, oppressive sense of the inadequacies and idiosyncrasies of the national rail system. So detailed and oppressive in fact, that you begin to long to open the window and gaze at some passing campagna or other. But you can't – it's locked, by order of the railway authorities, to ensure the proper functioning of the air conditioning.

Parks's non-fiction books have in the past delivered a quietly affectionate, often exasperated, picture of his adopted country, but Italian Ways is the darkest of the series so far. Here is a prostitute, dozing homewards after a dark night's work; here is a lost property office buried so deep in the bowels of the station that Parks suspects it may be a completely purposeless enterprise.

The book is made up of two echoing halves. The first part, written in the mid-Nineties, is almost claustrophobic, with the over-obsessed commuter reeking off the page. There's a relentlessness reminiscent of Thomas Bernhard as Parks details passenger incursions into his private space, misannouncements by stationmasters, and broken ticket machines, with the keen eye of someone to whom all this matters more than death.

The second half of the book, detailing a slow journey to Sicily and Brindisi in 2005, unwinds with an extraordinarily different tone. The southern sunlight scours its way into the carriage, and Parks delightedly wins his bet about just exactly how long it will take him to travel the 280 miles between Modica and Crotone. He swims out to sea, he sits on a beach. Suddenly here is a more glorious, seductive Italy; perhaps because Parks is finally, for a moment, not on a train.

But in the end the reader learns plenty about trains, and Italy. From the shambles of EU investment to the thorny issue of queue jumping, from gypsy buskers to the proliferation of shopping malls, gazing from the carriage windows you really do see the whole country go by. An argument with a ticket inspector becomes a vignette of Italian life, bringing in privilege, language, modernity, posture, and persona, as a group of young students gang up with Parks to argue that he shouldn't be chucked off a train simply for not having printed out the e-ticket he can display on his computer screen. In the 1840s Pope Gregory XVI opined that trains were "against nature" and banned the infernal rails from the Vatican States altogether, but Parks's railway system in the end links families, reuniting Italian mammas with prodigal sons, and provides a wonderful space for the earwigging of intimate arguments conducted, as ever, on the telefonino.

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

    Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

    After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
    The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

    After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

    Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
    Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

    Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

    The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
    Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

    Tate Sensorium

    New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
    10 best sun creams for kids

    10 best sun creams for kids

    Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
    Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

    Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

    He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
    Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

    Remember Ashton Agar?

    The No 11 that nearly toppled England
    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks