Having kicked out its old ruling elite - in theory - Italy is struggling to find anything durable to replace it. Silvio Berlusconi and his uneasy allies only worsened the country's state of political flux, and the latest shotgun accord between left and right under Prime Minister Antonio Maccanico has already broken down after only 12 days.
Books about Italy by foreign correspondents have proliferated over these troubled years; the difficulty for a writer lies in selecting and organising these gripping events. Like others before him, Frei dubs his endeavour an "idiosyncratic portrait", a catch-all title allowing for much non-essential "colour" endemic to this kind of book: cosy diversions on bureacracy, drinking cappuccino, living with la famiglia and so on. This is old ground and Frei doesn't need it to make his book readable or indeed entertaining. He has more than enough good material in the fall of the First Republic and the faltering beginnings of the Second.
His forte lies in his blackly humorous portraits of politicians old and now. An interview with the disgraced Socialist leader Bettino Craxi provides a seedy tableau of the old regime. Sprawled in a hotel lobby, ash spilling down his shirtfront, Craxi is a deflated, blustering puffball:
"I still have many friends, many more than you think." He is full of bombastic accusations, entirely without self-irony: "There are so many liars, so many hypocrites today.''
Craxi is depicted as a somewhat ludicrous and squalid figure but it would be a mistake to underestimate his power and continuing ability to exert influence. His campaign, directed from exile, to discredit the Milanese judges who are investigating him has been vociferous, amplified by the Berlusconi camp, who have their own reasons to fear a strong magistracy. There is a stirring portrait here of the main target, the anti-corruption magistrate Antonio di Pietro; it is a pity that his curious resignation - a political hot potato if ever there was one - is rushed over.
Frei enjoys himself most with his expose of Silvio Berlusconi as political arriviste. A former cruise ship crooner who took his pianist and drummer to eminent positions within his Fininvest empire, Berlusconi rewards loyalty to the point of guaranteeing places in his private family mausoleum. (When he came to power in March, 1994, Italian humourists complained that the function of satire had been usurped, now that reality itself was so absurd.)
''Cruise ship entertainment has provided him with a deep well of inspiration," writes Frei, describing the 1994 election campaign with its giant video screens and party anthem singalongs: ''This was Big Brother meets Max Bygraves." Nevertheless, it worked, and millions of Italians unaccountably forgot that Berlusconi was just as much a product of the old regime as Craxi. Not until the former had committed a mesmeric series of political faux pas did the truth begin to dawn. As a chapter called "Own Goals" says: Berlusconi's blunders have become textbook material for any tycoon contemplating a life in politics.
Berlusconi makes a good target, but meanwhile events on the left are neglected, something that Frei apologises for in a foreword. His light remark that Italian politics can ''inspire, frustrate, amaze or entertain" skims over deeper emotions such as the shock and anger felt by many at the threat posed to Italian democracy by Berlusconi's conflict of business and political interests, to name but one example. Neither is any of Frei's verbs an adequate reaction to seeing Giulio Andreotti on trial for mafia association and complicity in murder.
The book is dogged by sliding tenses, buzz-words and mixed metaphors - can a poltergeist burst from a lunatic fringe? - and the journalistic reflex makes Frei label everyone each time they appear, referring compulsively to "the media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi". Certain concepts are explained repeatedly, often with identical wording: the principle of preventive custody is reiterated at least five times, and Italian solecisms and misspellings abound.
However, the subject matter - the ever-widening abyss between the Italian states and its citizens - is more important than these concerns. Matt Frei's book is well worth reading for anyone who wonders why Italy, despite all the upheaval of recent years, is a country still incapable of real revolution.