The Hero’s Way, by Tim Parks

There’s a tendency, in the 21st century, to regard international borders as set in concrete.  It’s nice idea to believe this, as if the borders that the UN recognises, are not only permanent but also indicative of the wishes of those who live within those borders.  If people would only conform to the identity assigned by those international borders, maybe everything would be fine.  But identity is too messy for that. The most obvious example is the Kurdish people — an ethnic group from the  mountains of Kurdistan, spanning parts of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, all countries where Kurds suffer minority status. The lines drawn on some map don’t conform to their desire for an independent homeland which was promised but never delivered by the victorious allies after WW1. It’s easy to forget, too, that the unity of countries we might regard as ‘established’ is comparatively recent in terms of world history.  The C20th borders of Indonesia are still being contested; India and Pakistan are still in conflict over Kashmir and Bangladesh fought a war of independence when I was a young mother.  As I learned decades ago in Form V ‘Modern European History’, the nation states of Germany and Italy were only unified in the 19th century — so we should not be surprised to learn that the unity of Italy is contested even today. What I learned at school was a simplified version of a complex history framed around two heroes, Bismarck and Garibaldi, and it is Garibaldi’s 1849 retreat from Rome during that struggle for unification that Tim Parks retraces in The Hero’s Way, Walking with Garibaldi from Rome to Ravenna.  (See map.) This very interesting book is a travel journal with a difference. Tim Parks and his Italian partner Eleonora set off to retrace the march of Garibaldi’s volunteer army, following the historic route as much as they can.  It isn’t always possible to know exactly where the route went, but it was always off the beaten track to evade pursuit by the Austrian and French armies.  Garibaldi sent out decoys and doubled back on his own tracks in order to confuse his pursuers, and this strategy of systematic disinformation meant he was always the only one who knew where they were going.  Well, the hazards a couple of hikers face are of course not comparable with the perils of a covert retreat, but now there are different dangers.  Since people rarely walk long distances these days, tracks are overgrown; there are few water fountains, wells, taverns and hostelries; and roads with no pavements are choked with hostile traffic while freeways and other developments block the route. Parks muses that in modern life the connection to place which motivated the loyalty of the volunteers no longer exists.  The sense of identity that galvanised and justified liberal nationalism is now fast becoming undone.   Yours truly would never, I hasten to add, have undertaken the kind of travel recounted in this book.  While I also don’t like what Parks disparages as conveyor-belt tourism, with crowds and queues, as independent travellers we like to visit cities and towns by rail, stopping occasionally for R&R in a village off the beaten track. Hiking is not for me, and that’s why I enjoyed this book at a time when international travel is still so difficult.  I would never want the blisters and sunburn; the hornets, wasps and menacing dogs; nor the uncertainty about getting a meal or a bed for the night.  This is not a travel book that made me hanker for travel! Parks is ‘on a mission’ to deal with two issues: firstly the revisionist theory that people did not really embrace Italian unity, which he says is disproven by the way people supported the volunteers.  Yes, there were traitors and deserters, and Tuscany was not the friendly place he expected, but he won hearts and minds everywhere he went.  He was the charismatic leader that Italy needed. The second issue that Parks contests is that, contrary to popular mythmaking, Garibaldi was militarily and politically strategic.  In Arezzo, Parks muses on Garibaldi’s dilemma, how to end the retreat and their patriotic resistance into something that could lead to their goal of unification, and at the same time appeal to men to men who wanted to fight rather than endure the hard slog of forced marches. Time and again historians criticise Garibaldi for his naivety and recklessness. ‘His eternal instinct’ ironizes David Gilmour, ‘was “When in doubt, charge with the bayonet.”‘ ‘He fought by intuition’, says David Kertzer in his excellent book on the Roman Republic, ‘guided in no small part by emotion’. Of gentle disparagement by wise scholars there is no end.  The man is made a force of nature rather than a thinking protagonist. Why people feel the need to knock heroes off their pillars, I don’t know… Those challenges Garibaldi faced were significant.  Backed by an uncompromising church dedicated to maintaining the wealth and status of those in power, professional Austrian and French armies pursued

The Hero’s Way, by Tim Parks

There’s a tendency, in the 21st century, to regard international borders as set in concrete.  It’s nice idea to believe this, as if the borders that the UN recognises, are not only permanent but also indicative of the wishes of those who live within those borders.  If people would only conform to the identity assigned by those international borders, maybe everything would be fine.  But identity is too messy for that. The most obvious example is the Kurdish people — an ethnic group from the  mountains of Kurdistan, spanning parts of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, all countries where Kurds suffer minority status. The lines drawn on some map don’t conform to their desire for an independent homeland which was promised but never delivered by the victorious allies after WW1.

It’s easy to forget, too, that the unity of countries we might regard as ‘established’ is comparatively recent in terms of world history.  The C20th borders of Indonesia are still being contested; India and Pakistan are still in conflict over Kashmir and Bangladesh fought a war of independence when I was a young mother.  As I learned decades ago in Form V ‘Modern European History’, the nation states of Germany and Italy were only unified in the 19th century — so we should not be surprised to learn that the unity of Italy is contested even today. What I learned at school was a simplified version of a complex history framed around two heroes, Bismarck and Garibaldi, and it is Garibaldi’s 1849 retreat from Rome during that struggle for unification that Tim Parks retraces in The Hero’s Way, Walking with Garibaldi from Rome to Ravenna.  (See map.)

This very interesting book is a travel journal with a difference. Tim Parks and his Italian partner Eleonora set off to retrace the march of Garibaldi’s volunteer army, following the historic route as much as they can.  It isn’t always possible to know exactly where the route went, but it was always off the beaten track to evade pursuit by the Austrian and French armies.  Garibaldi sent out decoys and doubled back on his own tracks in order to confuse his pursuers, and this strategy of systematic disinformation meant he was always the only one who knew where they were going.  Well, the hazards a couple of hikers face are of course not comparable with the perils of a covert retreat, but now there are different dangers.  Since people rarely walk long distances these days, tracks are overgrown; there are few water fountains, wells, taverns and hostelries; and roads with no pavements are choked with hostile traffic while freeways and other developments block the route. Parks muses that in modern life the connection to place which motivated the loyalty of the volunteers no longer exists.  The sense of identity that galvanised and justified liberal nationalism is now fast becoming undone.  

Yours truly would never, I hasten to add, have undertaken the kind of travel recounted in this book.  While I also don’t like what Parks disparages as conveyor-belt tourism, with crowds and queues, as independent travellers we like to visit cities and towns by rail, stopping occasionally for R&R in a village off the beaten track. Hiking is not for me, and that’s why I enjoyed this book at a time when international travel is still so difficult.  I would never want the blisters and sunburn; the hornets, wasps and menacing dogs; nor the uncertainty about getting a meal or a bed for the night.  This is not a travel book that made me hanker for travel!

Parks is ‘on a mission’ to deal with two issues: firstly the revisionist theory that people did not really embrace Italian unity, which he says is disproven by the way people supported the volunteers.  Yes, there were traitors and deserters, and Tuscany was not the friendly place he expected, but he won hearts and minds everywhere he went.  He was the charismatic leader that Italy needed.

The second issue that Parks contests is that, contrary to popular mythmaking, Garibaldi was militarily and politically strategic.  In Arezzo, Parks muses on Garibaldi’s dilemma, how to end the retreat and their patriotic resistance into something that could lead to their goal of unification, and at the same time appeal to men to men who wanted to fight rather than endure the hard slog of forced marches.

Time and again historians criticise Garibaldi for his naivety and recklessness. ‘His eternal instinct’ ironizes David Gilmour, ‘was “When in doubt, charge with the bayonet.”‘ ‘He fought by intuition’, says David Kertzer in his excellent book on the Roman Republic, ‘guided in no small part by emotion’. Of gentle disparagement by wise scholars there is no end.  The man is made a force of nature rather than a thinking protagonist.

Why people feel the need to knock heroes off their pillars, I don’t know…

Those challenges Garibaldi faced were significant.  Backed by an uncompromising church dedicated to maintaining the wealth and status of those in power, professional Austrian and French armies pursued him and his unpaid volunteers as they retreated.  They did so in the heat of summer with their horses and donkeys and a solitary cannon across valleys and mountains where they could never be sure of a welcome. Parks is fascinated by the way Garibaldi’s leadership enabled the men to endure great hardship, but also by the practicalities.  Why, he wonders, did they often camp at monasteries where the monks could be expected to be hostile?  Because they wanted to win hearts and minds, not alienate villagers with sudden arrivals and demands for food and shelter.  The monasteries were outside the villages, they had no women to tempt Garibaldi’s men, and they had bread and wine, vegetables and fruit.  And sanitary facilities.’  Yes, think about it, 4000 infantry, 800 cavalry.

And a pregnant wife called Anita.  Alas, not much is known about Anita, but she is a strong presence in the book all the same.

Because he did not always trust the men he led, Garibaldi made sure to post guards to prevent thefts, and because discipline was essential, he imposed harsh penalties including execution.

Truth be told, Parks seems a little disappointed that his historical sources aren’t more forthcoming about the practicalities.  Alas, there is no index or bibliography, but he tells us that his sources are

  • Gustav Hofstetter, a Bavarian who was Garibaldi’s aide-de-camp and kept a diary.  He had military expertise but was also a bit of a romantic ;
  • Raffaelle Belluzzi, who in 1899 collated Hofstetter’s diary with that of Egidio Ruggieri’s (both were published in the 1850s) along with letters, unpublished manuscripts and interviews with surviving participants in the march;
  • Garibaldi’s memoir (which is available in English as My Life); and
  • Despatches from the French and Austrian military leaders (which of course were not available to Garibaldi).

Parks quotes from these sources from time to time, but not excessively so.  The book has a conversational style, as if Parks is chatting about his day and it’s highly readable.  He’s not an author I’ve read before, but I can see at his website that he’s published all kinds of interesting books including a novel called Europa, which was nominated for the Booker.

However…#OneSourNote:  Harvill Secker ought to be ashamed of the way this fine book has been treated.  The binding has failed after just one reading, with pages separating from the glue, and the author deserved better proof-reading.  A ridge is breached, not breeched. You might hear a peal of giggles not a peel of them.  #NotGoodEnough.

See also this review at Inside Story.

Author: Tim Parks
Title: The Hero’s Way
Publisher: Harvill Secker, (Penguin Random House) 2021.

Author: Tim Parks
Title: The Hero’s Way, walking with Garibaldi from Rome to Ravenna
Publisher: Harvill Secker, 2021
Cover illustration by Harry Tennant
ISBN: 9781787302167, pbk., 369 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books, $35.00