The narrow dusty street, the sun lying like a bright poker between the Madonna at one end and the derelict bottle factory at the other, the numerous family across the street playing ping-pong outside late into the summer nights – pock, pock, pock -and then no sooner than they’d gone to bed the explosion of a dog barking on the other side of our little palazzo, shutters banging open, a lump of bread tossed out together with a stream of curses… Via Colombare. Once I’d been talked into doing this book – my book on Italy – it was so much fun to write. And in a way, so easy. I’d been living for almost ten years in a four-flat condo with a bizarre collection of characters engaged in every variety of domestic intrigue, both with each other and with everybody else on that narrow street. What’s more I’d arrived in the place young enough (26) to be eager to be engaged, to be generous, to talk to everyone, to find out things. When all’s said and done, I came to consciousness of Italy in that street: building laws (how to evade), vine pruning, aubergines, watering restrictions (how to ignore), religious processions, funerals. I hadn’t come to the country out of any special love of it (though I’m on good terms with it now), nor with any special project in mind, but only because my wife offered me this escape route, this opportunity to underachieve in peace, away from successful friends in London.
When no one will publish your books, there could be no more appropriate place to underachieve than Via Colombare. If the provincial mentality can be said to have an acme, here it is. Yet funnily enough it was my book about this street that brought me my biggest and most international commercial success. Finally I had written something almost entirely likeable, a book without any of that gloomy unpleasantness reviewers are so quick to spot in the novels. But reviewers be damned! (though many are too kind). In fact, let’s give none of the reviews of Italian Neighbours, flattering though they may be. Instead, I offer a page or two from the book, and, if I can find any, there’ll be a couple of snaps of the place itself, and maybe even one, if she’ll let me, of the barely mentioned co-protagonist of the book (who translated it so wonderfully – and successfully – into Italian) Rita, my wife.