At dinner recently with a group of other Brits now resident in Italy and the subject of Tim Parks comes up. "When will that Tim Parks stop writing those books?", "And the way he uses all the people around him to turn into characters, it’s terrible!". Behind the howling complaints and bitter objections, what you can really hear are the grinding teeth of raging jealousy. What they really wanted to say was "Why didn’t I do that?", "How come he manages to do that stuff and I don’t?".
Italian Neighbours, Parks’ best and long-selling semi-fictional account of ordinary life in a dull provincial Italian town, is the kind of book that anybody who has ever lived in a foreign country for a while has probably thought about writing. It is one many Brits now resident in Italy have talked about writing, but never have. Few books in this questionable genre are, however, as unfailingly accurate, well-observed, well-written and as icily funny as Italian Neighbours is – hence its success. It drives people mad with envy.
Jealousy seems to be a subject close to Parks. He has recently written an essay (in Pretext magazine) on the subject, nearly all of the main characters in his books are afflicted by some form or degree of rancorous envy, and you talk to the man himself, and while he’s affable and funny, you get the sense that he’s not altogether content. Booker shortlisted only once for Europa, the stronger Destiny mysteriously vanished from the running following Parks’ scathing critical analysis of Salman Rushdie in the New York Review of Books. While it’s OK to slag off Salman these days, three years ago it was still a serious literary taboo. Parks himself certainly feels he paid the price for it. He’s not considered as being one of the big hitters of contemporary British letters, despite amply proving that he’s capable of writing more than one book, unlike some of his contemporaries.
His non-fiction books fit into this scheme perfectly. Not being allowed to play with the big boys, he shrugs his shoulders and goes off saying, fine, I’ll write these peripheral, ephemeral things and sell loads of copies and at least make some money out of it. And for the most recent in the sequence he strikes gold with Hellas Verona.
For various reasons (most of all the bigotry and racism of a good many of their supporters) Hellas Verona are the most widely reviled football team in Italy. They are also Parks’ local team. He has a perfect reason to support them. One suspects he’s a fairly recent convert, at least to the level of fanaticism that drove him to the extreme of seeing every single Hellas game, home and away in the 2001-2002 season, the record of which forms this book. By becoming one of the butei, the lads, the hardcore group of supporters who share his obsession, he manages to damn himself perfectly, he becomes a character from one of his own books, a chip proudly carried on his shoulder.
The book itself has the air of being partly a rush job (opposing players’ names are occasionally mistaken, on page 188 the European Cup and the European Championships get mixed up, on page 397 he doesn’t seem to know the difference between a "visa" and a "visor"), maybe with the urge to get it out while it was still relevant, but it is nonetheless a welcome addition to the dismally thin canon of good
books about footy.
The passage describing the lives of young footballers, groomed and trained and bought and sold like racehorses, is essential for any future anthology of writing about sport, his chapter on Leopardi’s Al vincitore is a subtle and perceptive piece of criticism, and the sections on "Paranoia" (of course) and "Elections" are as good as any of his writing on the bizarre paradox that is Italian society. Even though the narrative wilts and gasps towards the end, reflecting all too horribly a long season which constantly threatens to end badly, the book is constantly provocative, intelligent and funny. It also manages to end with a bang, though avoiding relegation has really go to be about the saddest prize football offers. I even felt sorry this year when Hellas Verona didn’t manage to pull off the act of escapology recorded here.
As a writer who knows European literature from Leopardi to Thomas Bernhard in depth, he has dazzling stylistic and narrative skills, reads in French, German and Italian and is thankfully not in thrall to the dreadful Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. Parks is one of our finest contemporary writers, and long may he continue to infuriate all of us.