A mother passes her son from the balcony of an apartment in Taranto, Puglia
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Story of My People, by Edoardo Nesi, Other Press, RRP£13.99/$19.95, 176 pages

Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo, by Tim Parks, Harvill Secker, RRP£16.99/$25.95, 288 pages

Mafia Republic, by John Dickie, Sceptre, RRP£25, 544 pages

Italy is now seriously threatened by its own ungovernability. The collapse of the so-called “Second Republic” dominated by Silvio Berlusconi and the end of Mario Monti’s 18 months in power have left a cobbled-together, right-left-centrist government under Enrico Letta with grim valleys of austerity to traverse and steep mountains of reform to climb. All the while, as rightwing and leftwing populisms grow, the European Union is being transformed, in many Italian minds, from a benign and generous zio (uncle) into a malignant matrigna (stepmother) wearing an Angela Merkel mask.

Yet whatever its failings, Italy is a nation that arguably projects more soft power than any other in the world – think of its food, its fashion, its music, its cultural history, its natural beauty. Resolving contradictions, as three new books amply demonstrate, will always be part of the task of writing about this country.

For Tim Parks, the perennial tension is between “the ideal and the real”. In Italian Ways, he argues that Italians “do not register the contradiction between rhetoric and behaviour”, and are insouciant about discarding or discrediting civic virtues. The historian John Dickie goes further into the dark side, pointing in Mafia Republic to the passivity of the masses and the compliance of politicians before the brutality of organised crime in the south. Were the region to be an independent state, he notes, it would be a failed one.

It wasn’t always seen like this. From the 1950s to the 1980s, much of Italy was a charmed place, its beauty wreathed in wealth. Edoardo Nesi’s gracefully nostalgic memoir, Story of My People, is of that time. Born in 1964, he was young when postwar Italy was young, when industrial enterprises pulled the country into the European premier league. Much of that dynamism was to be found among small and medium-sized companies, in the food business, the furniture business, the leather business, the spectacles business. In Nesi’s case it was textiles and the family-owned Nesi & Figli in Prato, a bustling town that since medieval times has helped underpin the economy of nearby Florence.

Nesi, while dreaming of becoming a writer, yoked himself to the family firm. He was sustained by the thrill of working “in that blessed part of Italy where everyone seemed to move at the frenetic velocity of the little men in Buster Keaton films”. This was a time when Nesi & Figli could scarcely keep up with demand, and when its main customer was a German entrepreneur who once, after a negotiation, insisted on paying 10 pfennigs more than the asking price. Nesi’s was a busy but also a languid existence, with holidays spent under the ombrellini in the Tuscan elite resort of Forte dei Marmi.

By the 1980s, the wider world was invading the postwar European garden. The new order was shaped by an ideology that had Nesi’s fellow Pratesi “ready to hand themselves over to the giant corporations of the world garment industry ... [which] are the true beneficiaries of globalisation”. After selling the family business (and becoming a well-known writer), Nesi accompanies a police raid on one of the factories of the new Prato: it’s a Chinese-run sweatshop owned by two 20-year-olds, where workers sew garments “with fabrics that they import from China ... but they still therefore have every right to label their rags Made in Italy”.

You feel saddened for the narrator and his family, and what they have lost. You feel saddened with him too, as you recognise in yourself something of the same regret for a world – not just an Italian one – that is passing. The fact that this regret is thickly gilded with sentiment makes it no less poignant. Edoardo Nesi has mined his own memories, and thus touches ours.

Tim Parks has none of that emotional baggage. An Englishman who moved to Italy knowing nothing of the language, he has, in the 32 years since he arrived, become one of his adopted country’s most sensitive interpreters, in fiction and in essays. In Italian Ways, he explores the country by rail – believing, as he explains to a Sicilian hotelier, that all Italy “could be teased out” of the way people talk, eat, drive and behave on trains. And, for that matter, how they cross le striscie, the pedestrian crossing. In the UK, cars almost always yield, whereas in Italy “you have to step onto the striscie and start to walk, and only then will the car stop ... You need to be courageous”. In a country where power is more frankly admired, perhaps it goes against the grain to give way to a vulnerable pedestrian – especially when the latter’s immunity is conferred by a few stripes on the road painted by a distrusted state.

This is not a “railway book” in any conventional sense. It is sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued about the absurdities of “Italian ways” – the dilapidation of the regionali (local trains), the mixture of indifference and bossiness shown by the railway staff, and the deep chasm between public officials and private workers. This last is brought to life in a comparison between the dismissive waiters in a Milan station bar – “they see most of their customers only once ... hence, in a certain sense, these people non esistono, they don’t really exist” – and the friendly, wisecracking barmen in the café near his university, who develop relationships with the professori and work with attention, even pride.

Parks’ wanderings take him to the south, about which he shares the northerners’ trepidation – “it is corrupt, it soaks up our tax money, and when it isn’t corrupt it’s superstitious, primitive, sentimental”. He traverses Sicily and then crosses back to the mainland, ending in Otranto, a town in the tip of Italy’s “heel”, site of the castle made famous in Horace Walpole’s gothic novel The Castle of Otranto (1764) – which, when he visited, housed an Andy Warhol exhibition titled “I want to be a machine”. “The truth is, you can’t visit the past”, Parks reflects. “Travelling by train means sharing a common fate”, he writes in the final pages of the book. “We know we will not reach enlightenment.”

He barely mentions the mafia in his southern travels – though it is Italy’s principal hard-power export, and has done much to define the country’s image abroad. John Dickie’s work, which spans the academic and the popular, is nearly all on that subject: in his bestselling Cosa Nostra (2004), Mafia Brotherhoods (2011) and now in Mafia Republic, he focuses on the submissiveness of Italian politicians faced with these violent “states within a state”. Until the 1970s, much of official Italy denied their existence, professing to see in the Cosa Nostra merely an expression of Sicilian temperament. When mafia “Men of Honour” were arrested, they were often paroled, or treated with leniency and even respect in prison.

Dickie notes that, in the Christian Democrat period, the ruling politicians wanted the votes that the mafia could deliver. The Communists, meanwhile, fought the mafiosi and were often killed by them – including, in 1982, the leading Communist in Sicily, Pio La Torre, whose fatal move was to help bring in a law that criminalised “mafia conspiracy” and who worked closely with the determined Carabinieri commander in Palermo, Carlo Alberto dalla Chiesa, also murdered.

What still amazes me is the heroism of the many magistrates, journalists, politicians, police, Carabinieri and ordinary citizens who have stood up to the mafia at the price – which they well understood – of murder. Towering above them all are the figures of Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. The work of these Sicilian-born magistrates in the 1980s and early 1990s ended any pretence of the mafia’s existence. Rather they exposed its murderousness, leading to the 1986-87 “Maxi trial” in Palermo, which began to chip away at an organisation that had launched itself directly against the Italian state.

Falcone was murdered in May 1992, along with most of his security detail, when a bomb blew up the section of motorway on which he and his wife were travelling. Borsellino, writes Dickie, said in his funeral oration that Falcone believed the struggle against the mafia “had to be a cultural, moral and even religious movement. Everyone had to be involved.” On July 19 that year, Borsellino himself was killed by a car bomb.

Most, of course, turned away from the fight. Yet Dickie thinks there are “more reasons for optimism today than at any point in the past”. The security forces have, in the two decades since the Falcone/Borsellino assassinations, been invigorated and benefit from new technology that allows eavesdropping; they have made debilitating arrests, at least in Sicily – though Dickie is more uncertain about the growth crime areas of Naples and Calabria. Apparently taking his cue from Borsellino’s oration, he ends by writing that “the police and magistracy are, at long, long last, doing their job. Now it is over to the Italian people to do theirs.”

It’s a point well made, and not just about the mafia. If Italy is to regenerate itself, to live up to its magnificent past in the present and future, a citizens’ movement must flourish: a weary shrug is no longer acceptable. In the decline of the political machines that have governed Italians since the war, there is also an opportunity.

John Lloyd is an FT contributing editor

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.

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