Sins of the godfathers
John Dickie's pacy history of the Mafia, Cosa Nostra, fails to engage with the Berlusconi era, says Ed Vulliamy
Sunday February 15, 2004
Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia
The crater is one of those things one will never forget, blasted into a stretch of motorway near Palermo airport on 23 May 1992. The burnt remains of a Fiat Croma were still wedged there, the car Judge Giovanni Falcone and his wife had driven over 400 kilos of explosives packed into a drain beneath the road. What was left of the car leading Falcone's convoy had been blown 70 yards into an olive grove, its three passengers - Falcone's escorts - also killed.
Falcone had posed the most serious judicial challenge the Mafia had ever faced. With the confessions of 'supergrass' Tommaso Buscetta, he dealt a crushing blow not to a mosaic of warring 'men of honour' gift-wrapped by Martin Scorcese, but a criminal syndicate which blended Hannah Arendt's 'banality of evil' with unity of purpose. The despair only deepened when, two months later, we correspondents headed south again to cover yet another assassination, that of Falcone's successor, Paolo Borsellino. The Mafia, it seemed, was irrepressible.
'So you think you know about the Mafia? THINK AGAIN,' says the blurb. John Dickie is an 'advertising copywriter and market researcher', as well as an academic, so the volume is labelled a 'definitive history... with the narrative pace of the best detective fiction. The mob genre has finally grown up'.
So we are forewarned that this will be a slick Spaghetti southern, rather than an investigative revelation for readers who really know or care about Italy. Nothing wrong with that, except that Cosa Nostra appears in the slipstream of other penetrating, expert books about recent Italian history, with which the Mafia is, of course, integrally entwined.
Dickie makes the curious claim that 'it may also count for something if the history of the Mafia is told to the world beyond Italy. This book is the first history of the Sicilian Mafia... to be written in any other language than Italian'.
The book has three strengths. First, it is not its predecessor by Claire Sterling, who inhabited a pre-Falcone planet in which law-enforcement screen heroes, mostly from America, fight their crusade against organised crime - with little heed to the Mafia as existing close to the core of the Italian state.
Second, Dickie contests the image of Cosa Nostra as 'men of honour' so disgracefully pandered to by Brando, Pacino et al. The implied claim, however, that Dickie alone lays bare the fact that the Mafia is a bunch of scumbags (for lack of a more poetic expression) is another of his advertising slogans.
Third, the history of the Mafia is so riveting that it would be hard for anyone who had done their homework, which Dickie has, to write a dull book.
There are, however, curious omissions. The remarkable democratic uprising against the Mafia led by the mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, is skated over. More serious is an unwillingness to examine how Cosa Nostra adapts to more potent criminal syndicates from Russia and eastern Europe, to which, in the US, it has lost influence.
But for Dickie, the Mafia is an apolitical criminal leech on any ideology that indulges or fears it enough to give it space. Yet the Mafia is a political as well as criminal system, and Cosa Nostra has, for a generation at least, been more weapon than enemy of the byzantine Italian state, with its curious ambiguity of being at once rotten and robust. That state is a labyrinth in which the Mafia and the neo-fascist underground have operated as criminal wings of other interests: Christian Democracy, the P2 masonic lodge, even factions in the Vatican.
It was a state that managed the so-called 'strategy of tension' whereby outrages other than those such as against Falcone - the bomb at Bologna station in 1980, or the one which ripped apart the Uffizi gallery as late as 1991- would be rightly blamed on either fascists or the Mafia, but acting in cahoots with state authorities.
This is territory which three recent books have explored to greater effect than Dickie's. These are The Dark Heart of Italy by Tobias Jones, The Antimafia by Alison Jamieson and a political classic, Italy and Its Discontents, by Paul Ginsborg. Although Dickie's project is historically different, these are yardsticks against which his book has to be measured, and found lacking, if it is to inform the present.
These books examined the Italy against which a bold generation of magistrates pitched itself in the scandals of the early Nineties, putting an entire political class under arrest and entwining its connections with both organised crime and vulgar financial corruption. Yet the outcome was not reform of the Christian Democrat Mafia state. It was a restoration of sorts: a new form of elective dictatorship with the advent of the master of postmodern 'virtual' politics, Silvio Berlusconi.
It is entertaining as a 'detective' story but what we really need now is an answer: what is the connection, if any, between the Mafia and this man, whose party has replaced Christian Democracy in Sicily? Dickie fails to investigate a potential trail in Berlusconi's membership of the P2 Lodge.
But the book signs off insightfully. The most persuasive argument is that the crater in the motorway was a sign that Cosa Nostra was under attack and exposed. Now, in days of apparent 'pax mafiosa', Dickie quotes a supergrass called Salvatore Cancemi: 'I find this silence more terrifying than the bombs.'