Why is Italy still riven with internal conflict? Why does one man - Silvio Berlusconi - appear to own everything from Padre Nostro to Cosa Nostra? Tobias Jones sets out to answer these and many other questions during his three-year voyage across the Italian peninsula. What emerges is not a book about the tourist concerns of climate, cuisine and art, but one about the much livelier and stranger side of the "Bel Paese": the language, football, Catholicism, cinema, television and terrorism - and the grip exercised by Berlusconi through his vast media empire and Presidency of the Ministerial Council. The Italy Tobias Jones discovers is a country which is proudly "visual" rather than "verbal", and where crime is hardly ever followed by punishment. It is a place of incredible illusionism, where it is impossible to distinguish fantasy from reality, fact from fiction.
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Tobias Jones studied at Jesus College Oxford. He was on the staff of the London Review of Books and of the Independent on Sunday before moving, in 1999, to Parma.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Dark Heart of Italy
1 "PAROLE, PAROLE, PAROLE"
The Latin is attentive, sensitive to the perfection of form. Italian lit- erature is, from this point of view, exemplary for its academic, for- mal character, concerned with the perfection of expression and of language. Italian life, particularly political life, is difficult to un- derstand if one overlooks this point. The declarations of political men, and parliamentary debate, are invariably aimed not towards the setting out and resolution of concrete problems, the reaching of useful ends, but towards creating images ... and Ciceronian rheto- ric, its formal perfection, its taste for the elaborate, its dream of a universe made up of perfect equilibrium, accompanies the entirety of Italian literature like a shadow. --GIORGIO TOURN
I arrived in Parma knowing only a few Italian words culled from classical music and from menus ( adagio, allegro, prosciutto, and so on), and I found myself in the infantile position of trying to understand my surroundings at the same time as I learnt how to describe them. At the beginning, not knowing what was being said, I only heard the noise of the language, which sounds like coins fired out of a machine-gun: quick clinks, long, long words made up of short, rhythmic syllables. Conversations were also visual: words were underlined by hands which worked overtime, the fingers moving into strange shapes as if the speaker were working on some invisible origami creation in his palms. When you do begin to understand the words, you quickly appreciate the beauty of the language. Every worthy person or object or place is given an evocative nickname. Football players, the princes of society, are called "the Swan" (the tall Marco van Basten) or "the Little Pendulum" (the Brazilian Cafu, who races up and down Roma's right wing). Venice is La Serenissima. The south of the country is il mezzogiorno, the "midday." The road which leads there is called the Autostrada del Sole, "the Motorway of the Sun." The little pleasures of daily life have suggestive names. A cappuccino, with its frothy milk and cocoa powder, is so called because it resembles the brown hood of a Capuchin friar. A hair-drier is called a fon because the warm wind which blows over northern Italy from the Austrian Alps is called the föhn. Even words relating to sexual matters seem more imaginative, more amusing: "to key," "to sweep," "to saw," and, my favourite, "to trombone." Another difference is simply the decibel level. Italians, I didn't need to be told, are loud. The palazzo in which I live is a square medieval building. It is now divided into flats, each with windows and crumbling balconies onto our little courtyard. It's hard to explain the implications of that simple architecture. I had always seen Italian paintings of sun-drenched courtyards lined with laundry and loggias but never quite realised what they're like to live in. It's not that there's particularly a sense of community (most of the flats are now legal offices, since the courtroom is only a few hundred metres away; there's a restaurant on one side, a gymnasium on another). It's that you live in very close proximity to your neighbours and, above all, to their noise. Instead of answering the modern speaker-phones which double as doorbells, most lean out the open windows and shout to their friends four floors below. The whole palazzo, naturally, hears the conversation. I frequently hear arguments from the lawyers'offices. There's pop music permanently blaring out of the gym, and twice a week an aggressive aerobics instructor rolls up to bark instructions which can be heard at the other end of the building. At precisely five every evening the lady in the flat opposite mine, on the west wing of the building, starts singing her arpeggios and arias. The noise, always mingled with the roar of a nearby moped, takes some getting used to, but after a while other countries begin to seem eerily quiet, even dull. The next, obvious difference from English was that conversations sometimes sounded like excerpts from intelligent discussions in a museum. It's hard to explain, but the past seemed ever present: not just in the endless ancient buildings, but also in conversation. Even in cheery chats at the pub, people started heated arguments about some incident from the seicento (the seventeenth century) or began discussing the merits of some baron or artist from the Middle Ages. It was never done boastfully, but rather casually, as if they were gossiping about a neighbour: just sitting in a pub, people would explain the history of the Farnese family (the dukes of Parma, who produced their own Pope) or the importance of Maria Luigia, Napoleon's widow who was Duchess here for three decades. They would explain the origin of the word "Parma" (the name for the circular Roman shield), and since the city is the epicentre of Italian cuisine and opera (home to Parma ham and Parmesan cheese, birthplace of Giuseppe Verdi and Arturo Toscanini), conversation often revolved around food or opera. That intelligence, an intelligence which never verged on arrogance, was astonishing. Listen to the old men in the squares who swig wine and play cards all day, and you sense that same easy familiarity with subjects which would, in England, appear effete: prosciutto, opera, grapes, and so on. And they're discussed in the most earthy terms: "I swear it, when I heard the orchestra my balls rolled out of the auditorium." The blissful creativity of the language is most obvious in the insults and arguments. The humbling effects of one-liners and put-downs were incredible, and in the course of time I received my fair share: "Holy pig!" screamed one old woman as I inadvertently blocked her exit from a parking space. "If you screw like you park, don't be surprised when you become a cuckold!" All that verbal jousting is hard to take at first, but once you can respond in kind, arguing becomes a normal, enjoyable pastime, a refreshing burst of sincerity. Those, at least, were my early impressions: the happy noise and creativity of the language, the intelligence, and the carefree chaos. Gradually, though, something very different became obvious. Having read E. M. Forster and D. H. Lawrence, I had always imagined Italy as a place where reserve and reticence fall away, and where the polite hypocrisies of Britain could be thrown off. For those Edwardian writers, Italy was a country so vivacious and sensuous that it became a theatre for sexual awakening and for carnal knowledge. It's what Lawrence called the Italians' "blood-knowledge": My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect. We can go wrong in our minds. But what our blood feels and believes and says, is always true ... That is why I like to live in Italy. The people are so unconscious. They only feel and want: they don't know.1 The more words I learnt, though, and the more I understood their origins, the more the country seemed not chaotic but incredibly hierarchical and formal. Even ciao was a greeting, I discovered, derived from the word schiavo, "slave." The cheery ciao, Italian's most famous word, originally implied subservience and order, as in "I am your slave." (In the Veneto, when you go into a shop, you're often greeted with comandi, which is again rigidly hierarchical: saying comandi isa plea by the shop assistant to "be commanded.") In Italy one endlessly has to obtain "permission": all foreigners--even those from the European Union--have to have a permesso, a "permit," to stay in the country. It's also the word used when crossing the threshold of someone else's house: "permission" to enter? The next word which recurred again and again was vaguely related: sistemare, which means to order or sort out. A situation was invariably sistemato, "systematised," be it a bill, a problem, a relationship. It can also mean a murderous "sorting out," as in lui è stato sistemato, "he's been sorted." The rigidity, the search for orderliness, was everywhere. "All's well" is tutt'a posto: "everything in its place." Randomness is a recent, imported concept (the English is used, as in the neologism randomizzare). Rules are, at least on the surface, very important in Italy. Since eccentricity is frowned upon, one of the most frequent phrases one hears is non si fa, "it's not the done thing" (which invariably refers to dietary habits or dress codes, where the rules are most rigid). Other words which sent shivers down my spine were in regola and le norme. Rather than excitingly chaotic, Italy began to appear incredibly conservative and obedient. I had moved to Italy because I was in love, and I thought that a relationship would be, if not casual, then at least outside cast-iron conformity. But this, too, came as a rude shock. It was an example of "systematisation" which I had never expected. About three or four months after I had arrived in Parma, friends (from southern Italy, where things are even more formal) started talking about someone called my fidanzata. Until that time they had usually referred to the person in question as my ragazza, my "girl." Then, almost overnight, this new word was apparently more apt. I went to the dictionary and found fidanzata translated as "betrothed." Strange, I thought, I'm sure I would have remembered if Ihad proposed to her, or even discussed an engagement with her family or our friends. "No, no," I said, wagging my finger in imitation of their usual admonition, "she's my ragazza." The amused faces were unforgettable. My friends slapped me on the back, enjoying having to explain exactly why I was now "betrothed." "And you've done it all so quickly," Ci...
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