Tobias Jones circles toward the center of subjects that are not entirely polite to even bring up: cultural differences between Catholics and Protestants, the distinctions between Northern and Southern Europeans, and very specifically between the English and the Italians. The topics would be difficult ones for any writer to approach seriously because they are so riddled with stereotypes, prejudice and folklore. I thought Tobias Jones made very good job of it. He writes beautifully - you can tell immediately, in the first few lines of the book, that he is an exceptionally gifted writer and observer.
He starts with the useful and understandable idea that Italy is a visual culture, and that England is a verbal culture. Italy is beautiful, the Italians are beautiful, the art is breathtakingly beautiful, etc. England is not so beautiful. The light is bad. The art is not that great. The English culture is Verbal rather than visual.
The English read a lot. Italians do not read very much. Statistics are presented to support this assertion. Italy is a picture culture and quite susceptible (therefore) to television.
This is politically significant because Berlusconi is a television magnate - he owns or controls almost every TV channel. (Imagine Fox News on every channel in the US. And imagine Rupert Murdoch as President.)
The visual/verbal distinction seems to be a core idea of the book. It turns out to be a Catholic/Protestant divide; At one time, both England and Italy were more like modern Italy -- visual, artistic and deeply Catholic. Then came Henry XVIII, and the Anglican Church. The reformation was a verbal revolution against a religion based on striking imagery, and the revolution was made to work by massively printing and spreading the Word, i.e., the King James Bible. And insisting that the power of the Word was accessible to readers.
The difference between Italy and Britain is to be understood (in this book anyway) as the difference between a warm country where stories are told with pictures painted on the ceilings of churches - and on the screens of the TV -- and a cold country where stories are told with words. The verbal English are more informed, skeptical, argumentative. The artistic Italians are a little too beautiful and a little too credulous.
The author is caught up in the tension between his two cultures, image and word, ancient and modern. As an organizing principle, it actually seems to work pretty well; it seems to discover the roots of a lot of Italian behavior that would otherwise remain mysterious to the Anglo-Saxons.
He also suggests that the Catholic Church is the prototype, or template, for virtually every other important Italian institution: including football and especially the Law. Italy has more laws than any other country. As a canon, the law is incomprehensible to ordinary citizens, who must turn to lawyers to have the law explained. The role of the lawyer as an interlocutor, that is, as a priest, is emphasized. Similarly in football: the game is so complex as to be opaque. One turns to the referee for guidance, clarification.
Tobias Jones develops this idea, this strange parallelism between the Law and the Church, as a way to explain the essential lawlessness of Italy. It becomes apparent that the country is not only politically led but also owned by a man who appears to be outside the Law.
And once again football. The author really understands and relishes football and his chapters on the Italian obsession with this sport read beautifully at every level. Sportswriting. Sociology. Philosophy. They are just works of art.
Finally, the Jones does not insist on any of his working premises - he writes from inside the problem of trying to understand Italy, and where he is bewildered by the project, he successfully conveys this too. After a long essay into the surreal and dangerous political history of the 1970s, he has to simply walk away, write about something else, because this ferociously politicized history makes so little sense at the outset and --after intensive study-- even less.
The problem is, there is not much Italian perspective on history - you cannot stand on the platform of the present and look back at what happened, and analyze it coolly because it is comfortably over. It isn't over. The past is still boiling mad.
The Italian sensation of time is blurred and continuous - the past and the present co-exist. Events of many decades ago - murders, bombings, massacres, betrayals -- still have immediacy and political impact today. In this respect Italy is curiously like the Middle East, where one faction may berate another over events that occurred 8 centuries ago, or like the China, where people occasionally talk to their ancestors.
So there is a lot in this book. Image versus word. The church as a model for absolutely everything. Football. Television and Politics. And the past and present melded. I should add that Tobias Jones has a wonderfully light touch and a sense of humor that could only be described as Italian.