Allan Massie

The Capotreno’s Song

Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo


Harvill Secker 261pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

There’s an Italian saying, Inglese italianizzato, Diavolo incarnato (‘An Italianised Englishman is the devil incarnate’). It is popular with British expatriates there, because it suggests that with experience of Italy and its people you can always get the upper hand. Actually I think the saying is intended to flatter the Englishman by making him believe he is winning even when he isn’t. Be that as it may, the novelist Tim Parks, who has lived and taught in Italy for more than thirty years, and who is doubtless as thoroughly italianizzato as is possible (even though it still irritates him when people whom he has addressed in fluent Italian choose to reply in English), can yet be driven to fury or despair by the complications of Italian life and the tortuous ways of Italian bureaucracy. Like most foreigners and most Italians too, he must, I suppose, fall back on the three essential words, pazienza, speriamo, magari (‘patience’, ‘hope’, ‘if only’), which in descending order lead you from vague hopeful resignation to acceptance that what you want is forever unattainable.

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