Wednesday, July 30, 2008

John Dickie - Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia

When you're interested in the Mafia, there's a lot of sensationalist non-fiction to be avoided. I've been looking for a while for a decent history, and this work definitely fits the bill. Cosa Nostra is compulsively readable and never dry, but also a work of serious history, written by a senior lecturer in Italian history and exhaustively sourced.

The book follows the history of Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian Mafia (as opposed to other Mafia-like groups such as the Neapolitan Camorra and the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta), from its roots in the nineteenth century through to the present day, including a new chapter bringing us up to the present-day Berlusconi period and the 2006 arrest of Bernardo Provenzano, the 'boss of bosses'. Dickie also deals with the connections with the American Mafia, and the significant differences between the two organisations. In the process, some myths are squashed (such as that of a 'golden age' of Mafia honour preceding the bloody, drug-drenched second half of the twentieth century) and other beliefs are confirmed (the role of the post-WWII American occupation in entrenching the Mafia as a consequence of their anti-communism).

Issues which Dickie turns his attention to include the ambience of Italian secret societies (such as the Carbonari and Freemasons) in which the Mafia emerged, and which continue to be seen in shadowy groups such as Propaganda Due, implicated in attempts to bring down and reform the state in the '70s and '80s;
the entrenched links between the Mafia and Italian politics, and therefore of the whole political destiny of Italy itself;
following from this, the reasons for the tolerance by the Italian people of Mafia involvement in and corruption of public affairs, which at times can seem inexplicable, and the practice of 'behind-ology,' the common reading of shadowy nefarious interests into the surface of public actions, which has so much basis in fact and yet can create gauzy layers of complication and paranoia which serve to divert action;
the way in which the very landscape of Italy has been shaped (chiefly in terms of the destruction of historical buildings and the erection of hideous and unsafe concrete monstrosities) through Mafia control of the construction and concrete industries;
the often vexed relationship between Palermo (Sicily's capital) and the rural areas, as well as the continuities and discontinuities between Northern and Southern Italy;
the decision of the Mafia to 'go public' in the '60s, as internecine wars exploded and the phenomenon of 'pentiti', Mafia stool pigeons who broke the code of silence, emerged, while at the same time unprecedented killings of judges, politicians, priests and others whose actions ran contrary to Mafia interests;
and the connection between Mafia, religion and the Catholic church.

Particularly moving are the stories of Giovanni Falcone, Paolo Borsellino and the other assassinated anti-Mafia judges and campaigners of the later decades of the twentieth century, who went courageously to their deaths in the attempt to 'clean up' their country.

This is an impressive, compelling and often chilling work, which makes a good companion piece to others such as Peter Robb's Midnight In Sicily (1996) or Marco Turco's documentary film Excellent Cadavers (1995). It'll make you think twice about glamourised or humorous depictions of the Mafia in popular culture, as well as providing a counter- or shadow-history of modern Italy and to ponder the culture. Finally, caught by the behind-ology bug, I started to wonder whether non-Italian readers can comfortably relegate these Mafia tales to 'another country' or whether we should also be wondering about what similar things might be going on behind closed doors closer to home.

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