The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney
Offering an alternative view of Italian society from the usual gastronomic travelogue, Interpreting Italians consists of a series of essays on historical, political and cultural topics that have had a significant influence of the development of Italian mores and behaviour.
Discussions include: the admiration for furbizia, or shrewdness - something that goes some way to explain the enthusiastic support enjoyed by Silvio Berlusconi; attitudes towards the official Italian language and the various other competing languages and dialects spoken by Italian nationals; the importance of bella figura - which could be translated as beautiful appearance, except that this goes nowhere near explaining its true significance; and the symbiotic relationship Italians enjoy with tourism.
Obviously, a book like this could easily descend into meaningless generalisations but the author is always aware of that danger. He is not seeking to describe a fictional Italian temperament, merely to point to influences on the society and to try to consider their possible impact. My favourite example of this was his suggested explanation for the many different varieties of pasta:
"That pasta achieved widespread popularity in Italy during the Baroque period is more than coincidental; the vast array of pasta shapes and sizes is itself a consummately Baroque expression. Each form of pasta has its own accompanying sauce which can be mixed with other forms in any desired manner to augment not only taste but also presentation – in other words, to enhance the aesthetic appearance of food."
At the end of the book there is a series of appendices packed with suggestions for further reading and additional information about Italian history, geography and cuisine. Altogether, this is one of the most useful books about Italy I have come across.