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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 is essentially a historical book. As proof that the Mafia existed in the eleventh century, the author thinks it enough to say that the word may be Arabic in origin. He then finds that the society existed in the Bronze Age, his exquisite reason for this being that Mafia leaders today act “like the personae of a Greek tragedy.” The Normans encouraged the Mafia insofar as they banished the enlightened Saracens and “plunged the country back into the polar night of feudalism”; moreover the “primeval mentality” revealed in the finest Norman mosaic of Christ Pantocrator perseveres today through “an atavistic layer in the Sicilian unconscious.” After a succession of similar howlers, the Inquisition produces some of the author’s happier inventions. He believes, quite inaccurately, that noblemen alone could belong to the Inquisition, and equally inaccurately considers the Mafia an exclusively lower-class movement against these aristocratic “psalm-singing marauders.” The Inquisitors, with the object of enriching themselves, “dominated Sicily for three centuries” until disbanded in 1787 (sic); above all by stealing the peasants’ wives and daughters they drove the unprotected poor into the Mafia. For confirmation of this breathtaking paragraph we are referred to the writings of “Colafanni, an authority on the period,” by which I take him to mean Napoleone Colajanni, who was an authority on something quite different and would have been outraged to be saddled with such fantasies.

On recent history, Mr. Lewis is much more accurate, even though guilty of anachronisms which often make his arguments illogical; but he has no coherent idea of the world out of which the Mafia grew. Without any discussion and against all evidence, he simply assumes that until 1870 the Mafia was nothing but a peasant protest against feudalism. Then at some unspecified moment it veered right round to defend feudalism against the peasants. In 1922 it switched again and decided to supplant the feudal aristocracy, after which the Mafia became “the feudal lords of all Sicily.” This is in fact quite untrue, but Mr. Lewis is driven to adopt this clear-cut sequence by the need to justify his dogma that the Mafia is a structured corporate organization with a head and a policy. If, on the contrary, he had considered the possibility that the Mafia was never (or almost never) an organization but a way of life or an agglomeration of many separate societies, perhaps his book would have made more sense of his own facts. In any case he names not a single “head of the Mafia” before 1900, and only two, with a possible third, since then. He rests his belief in an organized society on one recently published confession to the police which is of dubious origin and, even if trustworthy, is inconclusive; but Mr. Lewis makes bold to say that this lone document is as momentous a discovery as the deciphering of Etruscan script. He hopefully adds that obviously other criminal confessions once existed which would have confirmed his conclusions, but policemen in collusion with the Mafia must have destroyed them.

It is a pity that Mr. Lewis could not find survivors who would tell him something new about the Mafia under Facism, or who could at least have helped him sort out some of the apparent confusions. Mussolini evidently smashed the Mafia yet was outwitted by it. The Mafia helped to finance the March on Rome (one would like evidence for this suggestive but implausible remark of Pantaleone’s), yet its leaders were then imprisoned. Fascist discipline had no effect in Sicily and Fascist courts could not convict mafiosi, yet shiploads of convicts were sent to the penal islands. Although as a member of British military intelligence, Mr. Lewis was himself a witness of events after the fall of Fascism in 1943, unfortunately he merely (and, as usual, without acknowledgement) accepts other people’s accounts of how the Americans imposed the Mafia on Sicily once again. We are still waiting for an American repudiation or confirmation of this charge, and Mr. Lewis’s book will have one virtue if it provokes it. He himself says somewhat extravagantly that the Allied Military Government “had fallen under the sway of its unofficial adviser, Vito Genovese, an American gangster—later named as the head of the Mafia offshoot, Cosa Nostra.” His suggestion that the Mafia miraculously cleared obstacles in the path of the Americans, while it left the British and Canadians to slog through much easier terrain in Eastern Sicily, is another curious piece of arm-chair history.

The East of Sicily is one of the strange omissions in this book: Nowhere does the author mention the absolutely central fact that the Mafia is localized in one part of the island alone. Just occasionally he talks of “Syracusa”! But never does he consider that an explanation of the Mafia must include some study of when and why the East came to differ so fundamentally from the West. Again and again he speaks of the Mafia as dominating all Sicily; one must assume he believes this.

Mr. Lewis is in fact a story-teller rather than a historian or sociologist, and he has given us a loose string of entertaining but badly tangled and uncoordinated stories which explain nothing. He spends much time on such picturesque matters as Sicilian separatism, Giuliano, relic-faking, and Padre Pio, while several important issues are passed over. Carnevale is not even mentioned, and Tandoj only en passant. There is almost nothing about the effect on the Mafia of agricultural reform, the Cassa, and regional autonomy; nothing about the attitude of the Left and of the rest of Italy in general; nothing about the remarkable protests against the Mafia by many courageous people in Sicily. He constantly overdramatizes, as when he describes the Mafia Grand Council regularly meeting in the Archbishop’s villa (his anticlericalism is unrelenting), or the Benedictine father who beheaded his mafioso Abbot on the monastery table, or the Palermo cafe where every second customer “was an internationally famous criminal or a duke.” No wonder Ian Fleming commends this book to us for its originality and authority. Mr. Lewis accepts uncritically the testimony of the most unlikely criminals about their secret and affectionate meetings with the King and his ministers. He fondly nurses romantic and long-since exploded notions about classical Sicilian brigandage, and thinks that even some Mafia activities are “picturesque in a sort of depraved, Oriental way.” The frequent use of the adjective “Oriental” is a clear give-away; Lewis is so preoccupied with the romantically exotic that he misses what is truly Sicilian (once we even meet “a hairless Mexican sort of character”!). With enviable certainty he announces repeatedly that he will at last tell us the truth about awful mysteries, and then gives us a piece of trite and implausible conjecture which evidently contradicts something just said. Certainly it is good to have a book in English on the Mafia, for it is a colorful subject, and publicity overseas may help a little to weaken this pernicious way of life. But Mr. Lewis would have served the cause and his public better if he had written either a historical novel such as Sciascia’s Mafia Vendetta, or a proper translation of Pantaleone’s Mafia e Politica, 1943-1962.

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