I don’t know how else to say this… Tim Parks is, well, he’s an asshole!
I received Mr. Parks’ book, Italian Ways. On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo, as a gift from someone who hoped that I would enjoy the descriptions and stories of Italy’s railways and, by consequence, of Italian culture as a whole. For the book is not a travel book, nor is it a memoir. In fact I will let Mr. Parks himself explain what this book is:
“It’s not a book about Italy seen from train windows,” I corrected. “Not a travel book. And it’s not a book about trains as such.” […] “Well, I’m of the opinion that a culture, a system of”–I hesitated–“communication, if you like”–[…]–“manifests itself entirely in anything the people of that culture do. Right?” (189-190)
Clear things up? No? Well that’s as clear an explanation you’re going to get. Somehow Tim Parks thinks that his book is some form of a literary synecdoche, and he milks this all the way through, firmly believing that his own ideas and perspectives are easily universalized and provide him with all the knowledge he will ever need to understand Italy, a country that he has adopted as his home, but seems to absolutely loathe and disdain.
Tim Parks is a jerk who hates everything about Italy and everyone in it. He dislikes the train system and doesn’t miss an opportunity to criticize it. He dislikes so many things about his adoptive country to the point where I just wanted to ask why he stays and doesn’t simply leave what is so clearly a locus of unhappiness, but he probably isn’t aware that every word written is full of spite and venom.
Parks really really really hates people he considers to be overweight. His book is full of descriptions and tedious ones at that, but when describing people he doesn’t go into hardly any detail, unless they are fat, plump, stocky, overweight, obese, pudgy, massive, or any other adjective he can think up to describe a rotund belly. I don’t understand his obsession with deriding and shaming people who are overweight, but it got to the point of me circling every instance of this occurring. My book is full of circles now.
One laughable complaint Parks has throughout the book is that he cannot seem to pass himself off as a native Italian. He laments incessantly that even though he has a perfect accent and looks the part, Italians seem to be able to tell he is foreign, and this makes him angry, unhappy, and irritates him to no end. I went to YouTube to find a video of Parks speaking in Italian to see how pristine his accent was and if it really is as impeccable as he thinks it is. Not much of a surprise, it is terrible. It’s a good effort for a person speaking a language not his own, but if you are going to show off you’d better make sure you are up to the task. Parks speaks Italian like someone who picked up the language as an adult would, his speech is riddled with grammatical errors and inconsistent syntax. Clearly he has zero self-awareness.
Had Parks written about his personal experiences as a British man in an adoptive country (say, for example, following in the steps of Bill Bryson, Jhumpa Lahiri, or Beppe Severgnini), this could have been an interesting read – namely, Italy seen through the eyes of a foreign jerk. But that is not what Parks does in this book. Instead, he decides to propose himself as an authority figure. Someone who knows and who is going to teach his knowledge to others (he is a professor in Milan, and I would guess an awful one). The issue is that the things one cannot learn from books he gets wrong. Obviously he has researched the history of the Italian railways, and he has looked into Italian history, even if only terribly superficially. But when Parks decides to write absolutely about Italian culture, mentality, and language he is off in disastrous ways, offensively so.
At the very end of the book, in the Epilogue on the very last page, Parks offers a very weak and dishonest acknowledgment of sorts:
Have I offended people on trains, or in this book? I’m sure I have.
Too bad it comes too late and it serves as a premise for just another indictment of all the people who have offended him and upset him over the years in Italy. As a reader I just could not give a damn. I disliked the book so deeply, the only reason I didn’t chuck it in the bin is because it was a gift and I wanted to see it through. I hated it though, and I hated Parks’ voice. He is an asshole, and that’s all I’ve got to say about it.