Monday, October 26, 2009

Italian Neighbors

by Tim Parks

Another book motivated by my love of Italy--and good thing, too, or I would never have made it through.
  Parks strives to get at the essence of the "Italian personality" through his observation of his neighbors, principally those who occupy the three other apartments in his building, but also his neighbors in a small town in central Italy. Parks is British, and I believe he hinted or mentioned that his wife is Italian (she does not figure prominently in the book.) Together they rented a "flat" in what sounds like a charming town at the foot of the Apennines Mountains between Rome and Florence. Unfortunately, he just doesn't seem fond of Italian life.

Knowing that Parks intended to write about the "Italian personality" without whitewashing what he perceived as flaws, (temporarily suspending my disbelief that Italians, having been united into one country as recently as 1861, could actually have some sort of homogenous personality) I still expected more than an examination and critique of the many quirks and foibles he saw in every neighbor, with few pleasant anecdotes among them.

Some parts of the work held my interest, such as discussion of bottling ones' own wine, a scene in which they find and enjoy a delightful cafe (bar, in Italian), and the tradition of the cantina--the basement room for banquets on major holidays. However, the tiresome details about the feuding flat-owners, Parks' obsession with telling us about the barking dog outside, and the stories about the workings (or not) of the Italian government were simply dreary. Even in telling the reader about the cantina, he reported it as dank, musty and likely a waste of space.

Worse, I found Parks' pace so slow it was tedious. While appropriate for the opening scenes in which the oppressive heat and humidity of the summer seemed to suspend all animation, he gave his readers no relief as the seasons passed. The first cool breath of autumn air and the chill of winter moved with the same plodding tempo.

In addition, while some might consider this a minor point, Parks further disappointed me by hinting at a mysterious plot early in the book. Briefly, Parks and his wife are renting the flat from a relative of "the Professor," who has passed away, and their first task upon moving in is to pack his papers and things for storage. After describing in excruciating detail the mountains of belongings, Parks hints at fascinating secrets to be uncovered--even going as far as to say that more would be discovered about the mysterious Professor. But there it ends! We never learn anything else related to the extensive travels or interesting life of the Professor as foreshadowed by the author's examination of his things. (And a plot would have been a welcome addition.)

Overall, I can't recommend the book, just as I can't get back those hours I spent trying to learn the Professor's secrets.

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