'When the rain comes, you can see all the snails' horns' runs a Sicilian proverb. Recent books about Italy's corrupt politics show the 'fatal charm' of the country as well as its 'weakness for spectacle over statesmanship, realism over probity and style over substance'
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ON THE weathered tombstone of some German exile in the Protestant cemetery in Rome is inscribed the famous line from Goethe: Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen bluhn? (Know ye the land where the lemon trees bloom?). Wistful and melancholic, it seems the perfect epitaph for any foreigner who succumbs to what Luigi Barzini christened "the fatal charm of Italy".

Barzini was an Italian journalist born in 1908. He was educated at the Columbia School of Journalism, worked for many years as a correspondent for the Corriere Della Sera of Milan and later wrote The Italians, the only book about modern Italy that deserves to remain in print 32 years after its first publication. By turns witty, derisive, self-critical and ironic, it has never been beaten as a portrait of the "manners and morals" of the people of that enchanting peninsula. The Italians, by and large, hate it.

Alexander Stille has all the flair of a modern Barzini. His father edited the Corriere Della Sera. He lives in the United States and, in his book Excellent Cadavers, writes a terse English prose that suits the drama of his subject, the lives and deaths of the Sicilian magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. Where Barzini was florid, Stille is succinct. Barzini dashed off glittering epithets by the score. Stille employs a sober understatement whose cumulative effect is tragic. Their styles speak for two generations and two Italys.

Stille chose to write about the mafia in accordance with Goethe's dictum that only by seeing Sicily can one gain a clear idea of what Italy really is. On one of Stille's first visits to Palermo "the perfume of orange and lemon blossoms began to smell of corpses". He interviewed a judge who seemed to radiate integrity. A few days later newspaper headlines accused the man of collusion with the mafia. Two days after that, he shot himself.

To report from Palermo during the 1980s was to step into the conspiratorial world shown in the films of Francesco Rosi, whose Cadaveri Eccellenti gave Stille his title. I recall my first encounter with Giovanni Falcone late at night in the deserted and echoing Palace of Justice. Outside a Mediterranean thunder- storm raged. Flickers of lightning played over his bodyguards, who were loafing about in an upper corridor. The judge sat immured in a windowless sealed room behind a triple-thickness steel door. It was opened by his wife, Francesca Morvillo, a magistrate. Falcone was working through a pile of mafia papers under a floodlamp. His courtesy was undiminished by exhaustion. He talked in recondite and allusive terms, the epitome of the intricate Sicilian intellect. Before I left, I asked "Are you afraid?" They both shrugged and smiled. As we stepped out into the pouring rain, I looked up at the isolated office lights burning in that vast, empty building. Rosi would have staged the shot as a premonition.

Excellent Cadavers takes us through the ashen years that followed. Falcone was intrigued against by fellow magistrates and betrayed by corrupt politicians. He survived until 23 May, 1992, when the mafia blew up his motorcade with a huge landmine. He was 53. Three bodyguards also died in the wreckage. Francesca Morvillo, terribly injured, lived long enough to ask for Giovanni while the doctors tried in vain to save her. She was 46.

This account is a first-rate exercise in modern history. Stille honours Falcone's memory and paints a picture of Paolo Borsellino so profound in its depiction of his austerity and rectitude that his death, when it comes, seems more like a martyrdom than an assassination. Borsellino, the self-agonising Catholic to Falcone's detached sceptic, was killed by a car bomb seven weeks after the death of his friend, together with five bodyguards.

Few people know that Sicily's greatest author, Leonardo Sciascia, had publicly attacked Borsellino in a newspaper column as a careerist, and derided magistrates and politicians he labelled "anti-mafia professionals". By what deluded logic Sciascia arrived at this conclusion, Stille is at a loss to explain. But his grotesque parody of the truth gave ideological comfort to the mafia's political friends. It should stain his reputation for eternity. When Falcone heard about the article, a friend reminded him of an old Sicilian proverb: "When the rain comes, you can suddenly see all the snails' horns."

Stille's book is elevated above every other work in English on the mafia by two distinguishing marks of genius. First, he explains the politics of Palermo and the judiciary with a clarity that only an Italian could achieve. Second, he is able, with hindsight, to identify the connection between the mafia and public life as the core of the crisis that demolished the Italian Republic founded in 1947. Time and again I felt the humbling experience of reading Stille on events I had witnessed and, for the first time, understanding them.

Although Stille can outclass any foreigner, that will not stop outsiders writing about Italy - either because they love it or because they are trying to make sense of it. The collection of essays in The New Italian Republic attempts to disentangle the events that tumbled one upon the other after the deaths of Falcone and Borsellino: the crusade against corruption by the Milan magistrates, the subsequent fall of the old political parties, the temporary ascent of the television tycoon Silvio Berlusconi and the tortuous constitutional creation of a new Italian republic whose outlines remain unclear.

For those willing to plough through the thickets of sociology ("their problem ultimately was that they had no equivalent purchase on the collective imaginary" is an example of the prose style), the book contains several sharp contributions, notably an essay by Paul Ginsborg explaining the new crisis, and a piece by Patrick McCarthy on Berlusconi's movement, Forza Italia.

An awful lot of pseudery was talked about Berlusconi and his manipulation of television, mainly by broadcasters who had their own reasons to promote the idea that he represented a nightmare of global implications. McCarthy brings that theory back to the terrestrial level. "Berlusconi," he writes, "was a clan chieftain rather than a reformer. His victory was not a freak of post-modern politics but had deep roots in Italian life."

The Italian upheaval was, indeed, peculiar to Italy. In both the mafia and Berlusconi's indebted conglomerate there reigns the phenomenon known to sociologists as "amoral familism", that is, recognising only the bonds of family and rejecting those of community, town or state. Ginsborg rightly points out that a majority of Italians have not, in fact, endorsed the movement for change. Reformers are a minority. People like Falcone and Borsellino remain isolated individuals of remarkable calibre, striving against a culture of cynical inertia.

If Italy provides an irresistible laboratory for the academic, it is perennially a wonderful canvas for journalists. The late Peter Nichols, whose book Italia, Italia came out in the 1970s and is now out of print, spent 30 years as Rome correspondent of the Times, becoming himself a figure of almost Byzantine complexity. Italia, Italia was heir to the great post-war reporting tradition, steeped in an intimate knowledge acquired over decades, its Anglo-Saxon style almost submerged by the Italianate understanding its author had mastered. A simpler touch was shown by David Willey's Italians (also out of print), an affectionate, humane set of individual portraits that breathed the assured and reasoned air of one who knows the peninsula wisely, if not too well. Both books made the point that since the human experience is conducted at vivid intensity in Italian life, the place cannot be bettered as a study of the human condition.

In a sense, therefore, Barzini's "fatal charm" has infected every subsequent work of its kind about Italy. The latest reporter to try his hand at explaining it all to foreigners is the BBC's Matt Frei, whose Italy: The Unfinished Revolution is prominently compared on its cover to the Barzini masterpiece. But, as Paul Ginsborg points out, "events in Italy to date have not been a revolution, in any meaningful sense of the word". Frei is therefore forced to analyse recent events through a bewildering series of sketches familiar from his BBC broadcasts. There are some vivid snapshots, as in the unforgettable encounter with the deposed Socialist supremo Bettino Craxi, cigarette ash dropping on his paunch as he lolls on a sofa in a luxury hotel, doling out venom and threats before fleeing to exile in Tunisia. But the chaotic nature of the last few years is bound to render any instant work on the period transitory.

Stille's book on Sicily demonstrates how superficial any foreigner's comprehension can be, even when you have literally witnessed the blood running from a warm corpse into the Palermo gutter and interviewed the tearful widow. Indeed, Italy can lure reporters into the paradoxical trap that the more you know, the less you actually understand. Then, to compensate, comes the temptation to stray from narrative to libretto, to give in to the obvious lure of spectacle, drama and illusion. It is a fine line to draw. To write about Italy in the dignified tones of the Financial Times seems to me as misleading as to obey one tabloid editor's injunction to his Rome stringer: "Give it plenty of spaghetti and mandolins."

Yet how could anyone fail to caricature a businessman like Raul Gardini, who was treated with deference for years by the Financial Times, an epic fraud who put a bullet through his own head when the magistrates came for him? Or Craxi himself, who was hailed abroad in newspapers and magazines as a "reforming" politician, a sort of Latin Tony Blair? Admittedly this was in the 1980s, when illusion was part of the package everywhere, but rarely has there existed clearer proof that memories in the news business are as short as a commercial break.

Only part of this can be blamed on the outsiders. For there exists in Italy a schizophrenia towards foreign comment and an instinctive tendency towards that resonant Italian verb strumentalizzare, to make the actions of others your own instrument. Some authors are all but immune. The works of Denis Mack Smith, biographer of Mussolini and Mazzini, are historical and therefore "serious", safely distant from modern reality. By contrast, Alan Friedman's biography of Gianni Agnelli was seized upon by foes of the FIAT chief and trashed by his paid courtiers in Italian journalism. It may safely be assumed that any book or heavyweight article on Italian affairs will find both its partisans and detractors - yet both are simultaneously capable of denouncing the injustice by which Italy has been defamed by the author.

Public opinion permits Italian journalists and authors to pen the most scathing indictments of their society, its constitution, its civil servants, its family life, the condition of its monuments, the infrequency of its trains. But just as Edwardian schoolmasters preferred the naughtier bits of Catullus "best left in the decency of the original Latin", so Italians secretly prefer their self-deprecation left in the relative obscurity of the original tongue.

Barzini's sin was to write in English and to publish for a foreign audience his inevitably wry judgements about what he saw as the national weaknesses for spectacle over statesmanship, flattery over truth, realism over probity and style over substance. When foreigners themselves write with equal vigour about Italy, the reaction can be a carefully confected show of national indignation.

For a long time this all seemed very entertaining. In the 1980s, for example, the Italian ambassador in London complained to the editor of the Independent that my reports from Rome failed to take seriously the reforming achievements of Bettino Craxi and the economic triumphs of his rule. Italian journalists obediently reproduced examples of the Independent's "stereotyped" articles on such subjects as the mafia and corruption, which were loftily declared to be "folkloric". A tame academic from the LSE wrote to demand my dismissal.

Know ye the land where the lemon trees bloom? If only we'd known the half of it.

! 'The Italians' by Luigi Barzini, Penguin pounds 7.99; 'Excellent Cadavers' by Alexander Stille, Cape pounds 20 (out in paperback in June, Vintage pounds 8.99); 'The New Italian Republic' ed Stephen Gundle & Simon Parker, Routledge pounds 40/pounds 14.99; 'Italy, The Unfinished Revolution' by Matt Frei, Sinclair- Stevenson pounds 20; 'Agnelli and the Network of Italian Power' by Alan Friedman, Mandarin pounds 4.99.

! Michael Sheridan's book, 'Romans', is published by Phoenix at pounds 6.99.