In the last decade or so, the countries that French bookstores warily lump together as “le domaine Anglo-Saxon” have regained their self-confidence, thanks to elevated growth rates and comparatively low unemployment. Those who believe the recent economic revival of English-speaking nations can by explained by the liberalization of markets and the crushing of trade union power have simultaneously experienced a collective shiver of schadenfreude as they point to the wheels coming off the “European” model of social partnership. If you read British broadsheets or US news magazines you might be familiar with some favourite themes–the spiralling decline of the German economy, the lawless suburbs of France, the sclerotic heart of the EU that is Brussels. All these dispatches earnestly attempt to overturn the impression the casual visitor might have that these societies are well-run and prosperous but are, in fact, basket-cases, teetering on the edge of collapse.
Italy, long the wayward diva of the European stage and the subject of Tobias Jones’s intelligent collection of essays, has always been a particularly appealing target for critical bashing. Given that the middle-class dream of heaven can be boiled down to a leasehold on a converted farm-house in Tuscany, foreign writers have always looked for reasons for remaining in the gelid North. What sets Jones’s work above the usual caricature of Mafiosi and pasta, is that his battle with disillusionment is a back-and-forth affair. Like someone trying to decide whether to remain living with an unpredictable lover, Jones tries to balance the scales, weighing up his adopted country’s well-know virtues (sublime food, great football, witty conversation and an aesthetic sense that infuses everyday life) against its equally notorious flaws (footling bureaucracy, endemic corruption, and appalling TV). Again and again, the element that threatens to tip the scales to the negative is the figure of Italy’s Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, nicknamed Il cavaliere, ‘the knight’ who gleefully rides roughshod over the fragile sticks of Italian democracy.
But when their packaging of Latin theatricality and conspiracy has been stripped away, are the problems that Jones presents us with unique to one man or even his peninsular nation? Several chapters in Jones’s book centre on the legacy of the anni di piombo, the “years of lead” in the 1970s during which Red-Brigade assassinations and kidnappings (most notoriously, the abduction and killing of former premier Aldo Moro in 1978) alternated with no-warning bombings putatively carried out by right-wing provocateurs. Yet the intersection of secretive lodges, state-sponsored terrorism and paramilitary groups would seem disturbingly familiar to any observer of what could be dubbed Britain’s decenni di piombo, which the British authorities conveniently let play out in that quarantined zone otherwise know as Northern Ireland