A highly successful attempt to understand the bewildering, exasperating, and at times absurd political culture of contemporary Italy. Frei's (Southern Europe correspondent for the BBC) first book is as pleasurable to read as Luigi Barzini's classic The Italians and as full of insight as A History of Contemporary Italy by the historian Paul Ginsborg. The framework for this study is the ongoing disintegration of a labyrinthine political structure that was created after WW II. Early in 1992, magistrates in Milan began to uncover an unprecedented system of corruption that entangled all the major political parties and infiltrated all sectors of business, industry, sport, and culture. The cast of characters are the stuff of religious drama. As in any such tale, there are martyrs, like judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, assassinated by the Mafia; heretics, such as the Radical deputy Marco Panella and the porn stars who sit in Parliament; the devil, convincingly portrayed by Giulio Andreotti (former prime minister now on trial for collusion with the Mafia); and false prophets, Gianfranco Fini, leader of the neo-Fascist National Alliance and one of the most popular political figures according to recent polls. Frei's chapter on how media magnate and former prime minister Sylvio Berlusconi manipulated television and the national passion for soccer for his own political ends is perhaps the best analysis that has appeared in English. At the heart of the matter, Frei shows, is the artificial relationship between palazzo and piazza, between the political officials and the people. The bitter historical irony is the absence of civic humanism in the country where it was recreated in its modern form. The reader is left to wonder: Is Italy a commedia dell'arte, a surrealist nightmare, or a tragicomedy? Paradoxically, it is all three simultaneously. An unsparing autopsy of the corpse of the First Italian Republic, with revelations that inspire both hope and despair.