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.

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