The Mafia

The Honored Society: A Searching Look at the Mafia

by Norman Lewis
Putnam’s, 318 pp., $5.00

The publisher, somewhat unfairly to Mr. Norman Lewis, describes his book—which was first serialized in The New Yorker—as a series of sensational disclosures that Italian writers would not dare make and which reveal at last the whole truth about the Sicilian Mafia. Far from being anything new, the only interesting revelations Lewis makes are the same as those already familiar through the well-known narrative of Michele Pantaleone, published in Italy in 1962. Wherever Mr. Lewis departs from this primary source he merely reproduces a traditional if glamorized portrait of the Mafia which leaves much unsaid and unexplained. To him it is “the most powerful, and the most abiding of all secret societies.” The Mafia is the real ruler of Sicily and can apparently protect any Sicilian overseas. It is presided over by an elected autocratic head and a Grand Council. All its officers are chosen by regular democratic election. Blind obedience is demanded from members, the only punishment for infringement being death. Membership is always by initiation and is not open to common bandits. All these statements are made without qualification, even though every one of them is controvertible and even improbable.

The story as told here is certainly entertaining, but the attentive reader will soon be put on guard by some obvious flaws in the carpentry. To begin with, there are too many small mistakes—many dates obviously wrong and dozens of Sicilian names and places misspelt. (I counted at least forty.) The evidence is never discussed critically. We are never warned that something is hearsay or uncorroborated. Hardly ever does the author mention his sources, and careful examination reveals many mistranslations and many imaginative touches which presumably have been added to create the illusion of greater verisimilitude.

No doubt this makes the book easier to read and easier to write, but one price paid is that the reader loses confidence in its credentials. Suspicion is confirmed by a number of unresolved and even unnoticed inconsistencies that continually obtrude in the text. We are assured, for instance, that Mafia regulations forbid giving information to the police, yet, inexplicably, the rule is always being broken. When the Mafia virtually replaces the police force, strange to say some Mafia leaders are arrested. The mafiosi are said to be characterized by slovenly dress and taciturnity, yet suddenly they become dandified publicity-seekers. The Mafia is always out to attack the government, yet apparently always tries to support the government against the opposition. The Mafia never objects to bandits, but somehow is always killing them—how bandits differ from mafiosi is one of the many questions left unresolved. The list of apparent contradictions could be multiplied. It suggests, at the least, that Mr. Lewis’s stereotyped formula does not fit even his own facts. He does not, for example, think it worth any explanation that members of this so-called centralized organization seem to spend so much time killing each other.

Another doubt is raised by the poor sense of history in what …

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