Milan, where Tim Parks's new novel is set Photo: Needpix

The Italian jobs

A fable-like novel exposes the country's labyrinthine bureaucracy
July 15, 2020

For those not privy to its secret rules, building a career in Italy can be disorienting. In his new novel, Tim Parks attempts to describe to international readers the rather obtuse systems of clientelism that underpin professional life in his adopted homeland.

The book follows Valeria, a young girl from the southern region of Basilicata who has moved to Milan to become an academic. Despite having no family connections to rely on, and no contacts of her own, she attempts to rise through the ranks of a mid-level university. Valeria meets James, an aging English professor with degrees from Oxford and Yale who is struggling to win the favour of his Machiavellian colleagues. Parks makes use of these two outsiders to show how important informal hierarchies are to Italian society, from navigating its labyrinthine bureaucracy to staying on the right side of its legal system.

Most of this could be told in the form of a memoir or essay. Here instead Parks has chosen to compose a fairy tale filled with allusions to folk stories and religious parables. The supporting characters—the other professors, secretaries, treasurers and so on—are “realistic” to a point, but they also fit into archetypal roles, as paladins, spies, jesters, witches. In one chapter, Parks presents Ottone, the villainous university rector, as an ogre. It’s an irreverent approach, one which enables Parks to reinterpret his source texts, like Pinocchio, as a warning about the pitfalls of conformism, or Giambattista Basile’s The Tale of Tales, as a guide to succeeding in office politics.

While heavy-handed at times, and occasionally exaggerating how medieval Italian life really is, this is an engaging take on a potentially dry subject. For those who know the country well, the book offers a well-observed analysis of its less attractive elements. For those who don’t, it’s worth seeking out for its insightful exposé of the subtle forms that corruption can take.

Italian Life: A Modern Fable of Loyalty and Betrayal by Tim Parks (Harvill Secker, £16.99)