Tim Parks in Milan. Photo by Madeleine Johnson.
By Madeleine Johnson
Published: 2009-06-01
I first met the man whom the poet and Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky calls “the best English author living today” in the mid-1990s, thanks to two nonfiction books he wrote on Italian life “Italian Neighbors” and “An Italian Education.” Still landmarks of delightful but unromantic writing about the “real Italy,” these have been since joined by 15 novels, a book-length account of the ups and downs of the AC Verona football team (“A Season With Verona”), a history of the Medici family (“Medici Money”), a book on Italian translation of modernist English writing, “narrative essays” (“Adultery & Other Diversions”), two books of literary essays, and numerous articles published in the London Review of Books and other periodicals.

His 1997 novel “Europa” — a noir look at the European Parliament — was short-listed for the Booker Prize. The prolific Parks has also found time to translate Italian novelists Alberto Moravia, Roberto Calasso and Italo Calvino while living and working in a country that continues to fascinate him. (“If you really try to explain Italy to anyone, they’d probably just give up; it’s so bewildering.”)

The Manchester-born, Cambridge-educated Parks, an avid whitewater kayaker, is married to an Italian (they moved here in 1981). The couple have three children and Parks teaches literary translation at the Università IULM, a Milan-based language and communications university founded in 1998. He regularly attends literary conferences, will curate an exhibit on the Medici Family in 2010 and has a new Penguin translation of Machiavelli’s “The Prince” due for summer release.

We met for a lunch at a bar near the IULM, and soon began chatting about journalism and Italy. His favorite Italian word means “twist it up,” but he shoots straight.

You’re no fan of foreign journalists.

Correspondents here are such a joke. Newspapers send people who can’t speak a word of Italian and get someone to translate the article in La Repubblica… Readers outside Italy don’t want complications. They only want the stereotypes that play into their ongoing story about Italy, which only rarely superimposes the reality here. And if ever there were a country that you can’t understand without putting the word complication in the first sentence….

Mussolini addressing a southern crowd, 1923.

If you really try to explain Italy to anyone, they’d probably just give up; it’s so bewildering.

Probably it’s the same in many countries. But in Italy it’s about the confusion between what’s hidden and what’s not. It’s not totally corrupt — as it is in some African countries — and it’s certainly not totally up front.

You are a fan of Trentino, which you mention in several books.

It’s not the Trentino, it’s the Alto Adige! I’ve spent many years on holiday in the South Tyrol. I kayak in the South Tyrol. But then when I wrote “Cleaver” (2006), it was just the right place to put him [protagonist Cleaver], because a visitor hasn’t got a chance, no matter what language he speaks. The region belies all that stuff about Europe and unification.

The whole story of the Trentino and Alto Adige is very tormented. After World War I, when the South Tyrol region was given to Italy [from Austria], the Italians agreed they would give it some autonomy. Instead, they added on Trentino, creating a region where [German speakers are] in the minority. That way an ethnic Italian majority would always control it. So it was all a steal, a classic piece of prevarication. Only in 1991 did the South Tyrol finally get a deal.

It’s an absolute anomaly that it belongs to Italy. Try telling Italians that. It’s amazing when someone tells me that Ireland, if it wants to be alone, should just go for it. If you say the same thing about [the Alto Adige], people get very, you know…

What do you think about Italian political turmoil these days?

You’ve got considerable continuity in Italy back to the 1200 and 1300s.

There is the regionalism and the way the country perceives itself. Yes, it’s one country, but one divided and with an immensely complex system of government. On paper the government’s always designed to be fair, but in reality it’s designed to be subverted. In that anarchy, or at least lack of central control, the family becomes very important. There is also the oscillation between periods of crisis and of relative stability. All that remains extremely constant.

During periods of stability a situation that will gradually become untenable builds up because so many people are taking money, for this that and the other thing — to keep everybody quiet. Then you reach a point where there is a shakeout. There’s always the shakeout because somebody somewhere couldn’t go on paying and decides to blow the whistle.

Gomorra: Young boys shooting off their Kalashnikovs — a great moment.

Then there’s the way barons rise to power and get their comeuppance when somebody’s finally had enough of them.

So, Italy’s current ups and downs are not radically different from any in the past?

I think this catastrophism is another absolutely standard Italian thing. Things are always going to change next year and that will be then end of the old Italy. One constant thing in Italy has been the vision of itself as having fallen from great nobility in the past; from enjoying dominant unity into permanent decadence with these two great moments in the Roman Empire and the Renaissance.

You can create a series of stereotype figures in reaction and one of those is the man who will save Italy. It begins with Machiavelli, when, at the end of “The Prince,” he talks about somebody to save Italy. Even Dante, talks about a possible savior for Italy. And loads of people have been seen as that: Garibaldi, Mussolini… There are various versions of it, including a more military version… Berlusconi has very clear continuity.

How has your work been changed by Italy and translating?

First your work changes as you grow older. So it’s hard to figure out exactly what has changed it. But as far as English goes, I have not been getting buzz-words since about 1980. Now you could say that is a loss, or you could consider it a gain. In any case, I don’t use words that have just cropped up.

Even now, with the Web?

It’s not the same. You’re not in a milieu of people using those words, so you don’t take them on board. You don’t use all the colloquial hip words that people are using.

The other thing affecting you is what you have been reading. Because of the translation thing and being here, I have not read what I would have had I stayed in the UK. I’ve read not only huge amounts of Italian literature, but also read huge amounts of Mitteleuropean literature, which is because Italians read it. They’re part of a European intellectual community that Britain doesn’t really belong to.

You wouldn’t be reading [Austrian writer] Joseph Roth or [Swiss] Robert Walser in the UK. At the most you read Kafka, but not who was around him. [German novelist] Thomas Bernhard is quite influential on me. I might not have read him if I had spent my life in the UK, unless by chance. Here, reading Bernhard is kind of inevitable. He is obviously one of the top five literary figures in post-war Europe.

If you could read for pleasure, who would you read in Italian?

If I could read for pleasure… What I read is always tied to what I am thinking of or writing at the moment. It would be rare for me to read from the blue. I might read Elsa Morante, Moravia, [Carlo Emilio] Gadda’s novellas.

Is there anyone writing in English that you’re crazy about?

No, nobody I’m crazy about. I like J.M. Coetzee a lot and I think his book “Disgrace” is one of the best [Editor’s note: South African Coetzee won the Noble Prize for Literature in 2003]. It’s such an extraordinarily right book. There isn’t a thing in it that shouldn’t be there. It’s an absolutely stunning piece of work. I love his autobiographical books. One that has come out about his boyhood and youth ["Boyhood," 2003] is extraordinary.

Roberto Saviano, “Gomorra”?

“Gomorra” ["Gomorrah" in English] is an interesting book. I don’t like it. But it’s not the Camorra that is interesting. No, it’s [Saviano's] need to expose himself to those scenes of violence and then kind of measure the horror; his physical reaction to the violence. I think that’s why people connected to it. Because they’re constantly invited to feel sick about the blood and gore around them. I feel there’s something rather sick about the whole thing really. There are more measured books about the Camorra out there that give a more rapid picture. But they don’t have that same visceral attraction.

The other thing is that the movie didn’t try to film the book at all. Because filming the book would have meant going out and following Saviano around on his motorino. Then you would have seen what it’s like to go around on your motorino and look at dead people. It would have been interesting, much more interesting. The movie “Gomorra” was one of the greatest bores I have ever sat through twice. Praise for the movie just indicates the degree to which criticism and people’s response to things has become politically correct. People felt good and penitential watching the movie.

You mean Italians?

Even the English thought it was the right, noble thing. The movie was a crashing bore. There was one really great moment; the two young boys shooting off their Kalashnikovs — a great moment.

What about the Silone question [recently-released Fascist-era documents suggest Italian novelist Ignazio Silone, a well-known leftist, may have collaborated with the rightist regime as a youth].

I don’t know where I stand, though I’ll take a position when I have read the [material]. The Silone debate reminds me of how polarized culture was in post-war Italy. Writers like [Cesare] Pavese were presented as great because they were left wing. They were a little less read when that intensity fell away. Pavese is great because he’s a great writer.

Actually his relations with the left were very curious and strange. He was in a complex moral situation where he felt obliged to say or believe one thing while at the same time covering his back with somebody else. This could happen anywhere. We’re seeing it now coming out of Germany. In Italy it’s very difficult not to toe the line. The climate and the peer pressure to toe the line is what makes Italy slightly corrupt.

What do you mean?

Almost everybody feels that their own personal fate depends on the good will of somebody or some organization immediately above them. And no one in Italy believes there is an impartial court to whom one can appeal in the case of conflict. No one believes in the ultimate impartiality of some fixed institution. Such an institution may not truly exist anywhere, but here it is felt not to exist at all.

Is that because of the Catholic Church?

It has to do with the whole way the Italian mind-set evolved. Obviously the Church has played a part and it certainly hasn’t been instrumental in solving the problem. It applies huge pressure on certain issues. Fifty percent of Italian doctors refuse to perform abortions. You can’t tell me 50 percent genuinely believe we shouldn’t do abortions anymore. It is not a question of deep belief — well, maybe it is for some. You sense that people above them will respond positively to this declaration. Fifty-percent is a very high number. It is out of line when you look at things such as church attendance.

Is this fear for a job?

It is fear based. A lot of these people would like to behave differently. It is written very deeply into their psyche that going out of the group will mean big trouble.

Another example is people knowing perfectly well that they don’t agree with this administration. Even if they may know that the majority feels the way they do, they fear that it would be extremely unwise to speak out.

It was the same in Medici Florence in the 14th century. People saw that it was a complete and utter scandal. The Republic had been hijacked by powerful families whose institutions were false … but people got on with it. You can become morally complacent being against institutions without being obliged to take a decision to oppose them because that would be extremely impractical and unwise. This may be a modern mindset that is everywhere to a certain extent, but it’s especially important here.

Is the self-censorship perceived or actual?

Take a newspaper like Corriere della Sera. The pope says that rubbish in Africa about condoms contributing to AIDS somehow. Here you have a sexually-transmitted disease and you have this imperfect but very efficient preventive object … Only you tell people not to use it, which encourages them to take dangerous risks. How long did it take Corriere della Sera to interview someone who would cautiously suggest that the pope might have the emphasis wrong? Four days! Nobody wrote an editorial saying this is unacceptable.

Every other newspaper in the world except in Italy said something; even the Italian newspapers who gain nothing from the Church’s pleasure or are outside its umbrella didn’t. So what is going on? Nobody felt it was in his interest to write that article. There would be some kind of fallout down the line for the guy who did.

Religion is a theme of yours, for example your 1985 novel “Tongues of Flame”

I was talking to some people who aren’t believers but had their child baptized. That’s a classic. Half the people don’t even believe, but still feel it would be unwise not baptize their child. My father was a clergyman in the Church of England. When people he had never seen before came to get married or baptized, he asked them “What are you coming to me for? You can get married with the town registrar.”

Here a priest would never say that. On the contrary! It’s better because it’s an indication of [the Church's] power. You come along even if you don’t believe in it. The amount of conformity there still is to religious rites of passage in a country which is ostensibly not religious is extraordinary.

Is this a movement by the right?

It’s not like America with the Evangelicals. What is amazing is people from the old Communist party who have returned to the Church. Fassino goes to church [Editor's note: former Communist official and Democratic Party official Piero Fassino]. Why the hell do they suddenly need to tell us they go to church?

Wasn’t the old Communist Party sort of a religion?

No, it wasn’t a religion. But it was an institution supposedly underwritten by a moral structure; though not necessarily a metaphysical one. Communism was no more a religion than football is a religion. But from religion it does take some of the fanaticism and an element of institutional organization.

What’s it like being an expatriate?

Everything you do is different. Just think of walking out of a café. Here in Italy, you wouldn’t walk out without saying good-bye like you would in the UK. It would be like committing a crime or something. Now when I go home, I do it very consciously and people are very surprised when I say goodbye. There are certain things that are just so much more attractive here in Italy.

Such as?

The whole bar scene is just so much more attractive. It would be so hard to find someplace like this. There is a rush, but the girls waiting on you are courteous and everything is clean.

When you go home to England, how do you feel?

Like I’ve slipped into an old raincoat…

Do you have a favorite Italian word?

Attorcigliarglielo.

— See Tim Parks’ site for more information.