30 May 2011

Italy: The Bad, the Worse, the Really, Really Bad Stuff and the OK Parts

By the first 100 pages of The Dark Heart of Italy by Tobias Jones, Italy is looking more than a little dark.

In the first 100 pages Jones has detailed political scandals, failures of the criminal law, pervasive corruption in Italy’s one national obsession, soccer.

It goes from bad, to worse, to the really, really bad stuff, and finishes later with the OK parts – sort of like a terrible, overpriced meal that comes with a really good dessert.

Jones talks about how Italian television is a mind-killing wasteland, how cynicism and alienation are the enduring posture of most Italians’ relationship with government and bureaucracy. All this, plus self-destructive terrorism, an ongoing, simmering sort of civil war that dates to the end of World War II. I could go on, and Tobias Jones does, in sometimes sleep-inducing detail.

After an effective and fact-supported dissection of the Italian attitude toward women and feminism – “there are basically no female role models in Italy other than those confined to the role of television confectionary...” Jones reports the following conversation:

“How on earth can you put up with all this nonsense?” he asks one of his female students, noted for her firm, feminist opinions.

“That,” she said smiling, “is exactly what we ask of British food: how can you possibly swallow that rubbish?”

“Fine. But the difference is that we don’t spend a third of our waking lives watching TV, consuming what’s been put on our plate by the country’s most powerful politician (Silvio Berlusconi).

“Fine. But I would rather have crap television than crap food,” she laughed.

What Jones describes is essentially true and verifiable – the scandal, the lying, the evasion, the cynicism, the deadly inability of anyone in Italy to find the truth because it is so overladen with lies. And I haven’t even mentioned the really dark parts where he talks about the failed “Clean Hands” political cleansing, Italians’ troubled relationship with God and religion, the baleful influence of organized crime, and so on until you almost can’t stand it anymore.

Jones published The Dark Heart of Italy in 2003, and it became a best-seller in Italy, proving that even Italians enjoy hating Italy.

And still, as most of us desperately want to believe, there really is another, much more lovely aspect to all of this gloom, another way of experiencing the boot.

In a revised postscript Jones gets around to admitting that “... I occasionally blush with embarrassment... (When I first wrote this book, five years ago) I was... fuming disbelief and fury at what I thought was happening in a country I presumed to call my home... (In this revised edition) I decided not to erase or soften my (words) because what made me angry then still makes me growl deeply today.”

“It’s only, perhaps, when you’ve been away that you realize the true value of the place,” he writes. “I was astonished at the intimacy and warmth of it. Whilst various sordid scandals make the news, the charm of street-level humanity goes unreported.”

More on this to follow...


The Dark Heart of Italy by Tobias Jones. North Point Press paperback $15. ISBN 0865477248.

This appears to be the original 2005 edition, without the revised postscript which changes the conclusions of the book a bit. The edition I read was purchased in Rome in a Faber/Penguin edition: ISBN 9780571235926.

More information is available at the Faber web site.

Tobias Jones has left journalism for the fraught joys of community. He no longer writes a column for the for the London Guardian, but you can still read them here (“A Life Less Ordinary”).

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