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An Italy beyond the Tuscan sun

Times Staff Writer

The Dark Heart of Italy

An Incisive Portrait of Europe’s Most Beautiful, Most Disconcerting Country

Tobias Jones

North Point Press: 314 pp., $24

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The most penetrating glimpses of societies often come from outsiders. You don’t have to go back to Tocqueville for this: The combination of intimacy and ironic distance energizes books like “The Italians” by Columbia University-educated Luigi Barzini, “The English” by part Scotsman Jeremy Paxman and “Paris to the Moon” by Montreal-born New Yorker Adam Gopnik. In most cases, these skeptics are saved from condescension by a real love for their respective subjects. (You can sometimes find the same thing in early writings about Los Angeles.)

With “The Dark Heart of Italy,” British reporter Tobias Jones joins this distinguished company. The book is part impressionistic travel journal (he moved to Parma, in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, in 1999), part journalistic dispatch, part brainy cultural study.

Some of Jones’ darts land more cleanly than others. On the whole, though, “Dark Heart,” which caused such a ruckus upon its publication in Italy that it became the bestselling foreign-language book in the nation’s history, is both well observed and a pleasure to read.

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Though most writing on Italy is enraptured with its art, countryside and enchanted lifestyle, Jones is an heir to Byron, who described its “fatal gift of beauty,” and Luchino Visconti, whose 1951 film “Bellissima” concerned the danger in surface pleasures. Jones paints a place where aesthetics and charm cover moral evasion, where visual dash makes up for widespread illiteracy, where centuries of strictly hierarchical Catholicism prepared the people for 21 years of fascist rule. He also sees the richness of Italian culture being degraded by violence, consumerism and bad TV.

“How is it that the most creative, cultured country in the world has the worst, most abysmal television on the planet?” Jones asks. (He might have wondered, too, how the nation of Verdi, with its intensely musical spoken language, could produce what is surely the world’s worst pop music.)

His best chapters, laced with quotes from Pirandello, Federico Fellini and Italo Calvino, concern Italian television, film, soccer and language, and are written in the puckish tone of the best British journalism. His chapter on “football” describes how Italian soccer players sometimes publicly weep after scoring on their old teams, using the sport as a metaphor for society. “British football is like the brass section in an orchestra -- noisy, boisterous, occasionally impressive but normally unsophisticated. Italian football is the string section -- soaring, elegant, providing the melody and emotion.”

Passages about the use of scantily clad women in news and television advertising are laugh-out-loud funny. “The use of the female body in the mass hypnosis is central,” Jones writes, to this “land that feminism forgot.” He describes a former cultural minister who is “admired for his fine taste not only in Renaissance art but also in women taken from the ‘dubious actress’ drawer. He has such an amorous reputation that he stars in advertisements for a coffee brand: he’s married to an ugly woman until he takes a sip, and then he’s surrounded once again by beautiful nymphs.”

Standing in the background throughout much of Jones’ book, as squarely as Mussolini does in Barzini’s “The Italians,” is Silvio Berlusconi. So it’s only fair that the prime minister gets a chapter of his own near the conclusion of “Dark Heart.” While much of the media attention on the book has focused on this chapter, this portrait of a leader who seems a combination of George Steinbrenner, William Randolph Hearst and Big Brother is remarkably fair and engaging.

The parts that work less well are two long chapters on a 1969 bombing in Milan’s Piazza Fontana, which eventually led to the creation of the Commissione Stragi (the “Slaughter Commission”), and a 1972 Pisan murder known as the Sofri case. Both cases are described in detail and demonstrate a contention that Jones shares, for the most part, with Berlusconi: that the nation has been caught for decades in a low-grade civil war between communists and fascists, with complicating bits of Catholicism, anarchism and Mafia action thrown in.

But these chapters, however well reported, lack the sweep of the rest -- and there’s a sense that the nation he describes here remains, to use his term, “unfathomable.”

Despite what at times is a scathing portrait, Jones closes “Dark Heart” with a rhapsodic passage about the nation’s dignity and charm. A betrayal of his premise? It seems rather the kind of struggle that beauty and pleasure create in us all.

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