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An Incisive Portrait of Europe’s Most Beautiful, Most Disconcerting Country

by Tobias Jones

Pub Date: June 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-86547-700-0
Publisher: North Point/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Expatriate’s debut memoir, in which Italian culture postures, disappoints, and still makes life more exciting than anywhere else.

Sound familiar? This belongs to the venerable genre featuring a protagonist who goes to live in a foreign land, learns the language, delves into society’s seamy underside, and exposes the machinations of a corrupt power structure while maintaining a parallel discourse on the physical and cultural charms that make the country, in the end, simply irresistible. Just as fellow Brit Peter Robb does in A Death in Brazil (p. 262), Jones performs a literary autopsy on Italy while bringing it back to life. To hear him tell it, while half of all Italians are in its shops and streets, the other half are queued at the post office to apply for one of the endless list of permits the country’s “clerical class” has imposed on its citizenry. Italian courts, working from a base of more law than anywhere in Europe, but without habeas corpus, tend to produce paperwork in the absence of clear convictions or acquittals, as those atop the power pyramids (including the Mafia) inevitably tamper with magistrates, juries, and whatever witnesses remain alive. Italians complain about it and suffer (insert here a mighty shrug in which the arms may resemble bat’s wings) but, Jones explains, this is a country where patriotism goes first to one’s city-state or district; decades of shocking factional terror following WWII were, in effect, a civil war that, like a lot of other things in Italy, never quite got finished. Enter the oligarchs, cut from the same pattern as current PM Silvio Berlusconi: owners of industries, soccer teams, newspapers or TV stations, and criminal records who are nonetheless able to vault in and out of government at will. “Here,” Jones notes, “conflict of interest is a positive thing.”

Engaging scenes from a country trapped in a rather nice brothel.