Italian Life by Tim Parks

Harvill Secker, £16.99

Review by Malcolm Forbes

For almost 30 years Tim Parks has been charming regular readers, seasoned armchair travellers and ardent Italophiles with a range of nonfiction about his relationship with his adopted land. Italian Neighbours (1992) dealt with his move to a small town near Verona and his attempts to fit in. An Italian Education (1996) revolved around the Italian school system while Italian Ways (2013) presented an insightful portrait of the country through the author’s many train journeys across it.

The title of Parks’ latest work, Italian Life, hints at a rehash of elements from those previous offerings. However, this book is refreshingly different. For one thing, it isn’t a memoir but a novel. Set in a university in Milan, it takes the form of a cautionary tale involving high intrigue, endemic corruption and Machiavellian power play. As the drama unfolds, Parks skilfully shows how the rules and the manoeuvrings within Italian university life mirror those at work in Italian society.

Parks assembles a large cast “so that the Italian comedy, divine or demonic, can be acted out.” At the centre of it are two protagonists – each an outsider – and their separate academic journeys. We meet independent spirit Valeria who leaves home and hearth in Basilicata in the far south to study in the north. Intelligent, focused and determined to succeed, Valeria applies herself and works towards a PhD. But certain professors demand respect, and when exams come around she discovers the hard way that good grades depend as much on how well you have kowtowed.

On the other side of the academic fence there is the James. Despite degrees from Oxford and Yale (his creator attended Cambridge and Harvard), years of experience teaching English to university students and several translated books to his name, James struggles first to secure a career-track position and later to be accepted by his peers. We follow his tortuous progress negotiating hurdles, loopholes and vested interests. Along the way he learns some tough home truths: he is considered riffraff from abroad; his chances of winning a translation prize are nil as he hasn’t been raccomandato – recommended, endorsed. To get anywhere he has to swallow his pride and jettison his principles.

In time Parks allows his characters’ lives to intersect. “As soon as you finish your degree,” James tells Valeria, “you can forget meritocracy. From then on, it’s who you know.” The pair must dance to the tune of two bigwigs who have “hijacked” the university: bully boy Rector Ottone and his devoted acolyte Professoressa Modesto. James believes it is his moral duty “to oppose them, to depose them.” But what might the consequences be if he incurs their wrath?

This could have been a dry, niche study of academic life. Fortunately it proves illuminating and entertaining. When Parks takes his reader behind the scenes and into a murky world of favouritism and nepotism, back-scratching and back-stabbing, collusion and exclusion, his narrative cranks up a gear and becomes gripping.

As ever, the author shines a light on many tangential topics, from the importance of the Italian family and nightmare of Italian bureaucracy to “the Milanese obsession with the aperitivo.” Excerpts and close readings from Italian literature provide colourful parallels; scattered nuggets of trivia (“60 per cent of Italians never finish the degrees they start”) add sparkle and provoke surprise.

One topic that isn’t touched upon is Covid-19. The book was written before the pandemic ravaged Italy, in particular the Lombardy region where the main events take place. With luck, Parks will tackle this modern tragedy on another occasion. For the moment he examines Italian life not death, and by laying bare hearts and minds he reveals how the nation operates.