Marking the salami

An Italian Education by Tim Parks, Secker, pounds 15.99
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Indy Lifestyle Online
In 1981 the author Tim Parks, aiming to support a novel-writing habit by teaching English, went to live in Italy and ended up in a village outside Verona, a sort of Mediterranean equivalent of Cricklewood. He married. He had a son. He wrote some well- received novels and Italian Neighbours, a very funny book about ordinary, humdrum Cricklewood Italy. Then, in the late Eighties, he committed the most momentous, unthinkable act of folly - something that today no self-respecting upwardly mobile, Italian parent would dream of: he conceived a second child.

Child number two means that Parks and his Italian wife Rita have to buy a house. Only, what with all the Italian middle class cheating on their taxes, squirrelling it all away in high-yield government bonds and therefore being able to buy up apartments for their own children, there is nothing to buy in their village. Instead they are forced to buy a flat in a building not yet finished.

The day after the second child is born there is a meeting of the new condominium. Parks discovers that most of his neighbours are unhappy with the security precautions. The front doors to the flats may weigh 200 pounds each and have an armoured steel core, but what they really need is a communal, remote-controlled self-locking gate with flashing yellow lights on the top.

Parks balks at the cost of this contraption. He asks if there is really any need... Then, with a flash of inspiration, he suddenly remembers that he has read in the papers, just the other week, of a child being killed when one of these automatic gates trapped his neck. A horrified silence descends. Parks thinks he has clinched it. How clever he was setting at loggerheads the Italian obsession with security against that other obsession, the safety of those precious only children.

Months later the neighbours invite him to a barbecue. The subject of the remote controlled self-locking gates comes up again. The neighbour has now, it turns out, found a company producing a completely child- safe gate with a light-sensitive trigger costing only pounds 900 more than the basic version... Parks capitulates.

Such little daily incidents are the stuff of this book which is sequel to the Cricklewood Italy book and almost as funny. This journey starts with Rita's announcement of her second pregnancy while the family are sitting on the beach at Pescara, and continues through the birth, to playschool - where the days' bowel movements of each child, detailing number, consistency etc, are marked on a board - to the childminder, to expeditions, hobbies and then back at Pescara six years later when the birth of a third child is imminent.

The intention is, as Parks explains, to describe ''how it happens that an Italian becomes an Italian,'' and how his own children are growing up foreigners (and speaking a dialect he cannot fully understand.) And in Italy, which is such a child-orientated culture, this also provides an effective focus for looking at that most ineffable quality - the national psyche.

By and large he carries it off. He is very funny about Italians' foibles - their hypochondria, their hedonism, their intolerance of bad weather, their obsession with diplomas and meaningless bits of paper, their sexism, their self-sacrificing but also highly controlling vision of family relations. His central preoccupation is the extraordinary balancing act Italian society demands - and receives - from its people: the big-car, bright-lights, designer-label, gadget-ridden and exaggeratedly consumerist world of modern Italy and how it welds onto an older peasant reality of untarmacked roads and women who go shopping in their slippers, and Dickensian child drudgettes who serve customers in country trattorias.

This contrast is evinced in extraordinary ways; often it is even seen between generations of the same family. Parks's father-in-law - and I don't think he is joking - claims to have been brought up in a household where in the evening the end of the salami was marked with a pencil to stop nightime nibbling.

Usually the Italians sail through the contradictions. A certain instinctive theatricality, a happy acceptance of the difference - enormous difference in Italy's case - between rules and reality, between how things are supposed to be and how they really are, helps them. Only occasionally do they come unstuck. The key dilemma facing Italians is how to live in a beautiful, spotless flat and yet spoil your child rotten.

And, by our more robust standards, children are spoilt indeed - indulged, coddled, cuddled. Everyone is nice to them. When Parks takes his children round the village, they are fed sweets and chucked under the chin at every street corner. The weather is better. The food is better. They are not forced to eat what they do not like. There is - think of it - no word in Italian for ''bedtime.'' This may all seem a bit cloying and over-comfortable. At the end of the book one is well and truly ready for a bracing walk or a stern matronly voice shouting ''Because I say so''. But in the long run, it is hard not to conclude that having a happier time must be good for you.

It must account for why Italian children are nicer than British kids and less likely to take to air guns and chopping the heads off the class hamsters. It may also account for why, compared with their British counterparts, Italian adolescents are more confident, more settled, more cheerful and (mysteriously) less spotty.

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