• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Society of Friends’

The Mafia and Politics

by Michele Pantaleone, with a Preface by Carlo Levi, translated by Margaret Stephens
Coward, McCann, 255 pp., $5.50

It would seem that this generation of Italians was in a unique position to do away with the Mafia once and for all. We can determine its historic origins and social causes, define the conditions in which it flourishes, and should therefore be able at last not merely to prune a few branches but to strike at its roots. And at the present time all Italian political parties, both in power and in the opposition, consider the Mafia a national shame and are vociferously determined to do what is necessary—conduct investigations, vote ad hoc laws and special appropriations—to exterminate it. We are only the latest in a long line of defeated Mafia fighters. Our forefathers, fathers, and older brothers tried to cure it according to whatever diagnosis was fashionable at the time. These remedies were by no means wrong: But insofar as they were only partially right they produced only partial results. The Mafia was intimidated at times, once in a while driven underground, but never conquered. In fact it always bounced back more powerful and arrogant than before. One hundred and more years of wrong approaches should therefore have made it easy for our generation to determine exactly what is to be done. For some reason, this has not yet happened. At the moment of writing, the Mafia, though hampered and embittered by national and international initiatives, is flourishing more than it ever did in the past.

Our generation should be helped, for one thing, by the vast number of good books now available on the subject. There used to be a few standard authorities that everybody quoted. The best (still the fundamental text) was written in 1876 by Leopoldo Franchetti, called Condizioni politiche e amministrative della Sicilia. Franchetti was the descendant of a distinguished Jewish family from Venice, a man of means, a patriot, a Liberale, who was made a baron by King Umberto I for his many civic acts. He wrote his book on the basis of only one visit to Sicily, but described the phenomenon more or less as we know it today. Every year since World War II more books have appeared, a few written by foreigners, many of them based on painstaking research or field surveys. There are the famous works of Danilo Dolci (Report from Palermo, Outlaws, Waste) which contain a mine of facts gathered at the source. A former judge, Giuseppe Guido Loschiavo, is the author of a learned historic and juridical study called Cento anni di Mafia. The feeling of life under the leaden oppression of the society was described by one of Italy’s greatest living novelists, a Sicilian school teacher named Leonardo Sciascia, in two novels, Il giorno della civetta and A ciascune il suo. There are works by journalists, some of them hurried compilations with lurid covers, and one superior piece of reportage, Michele Pantaleone’s The Mafia and Politics, with a Preface by Carlo Levi, now translated into English.

PANTALEONE WAS BORN in the town of Villalba, one of the most important Mafia nerve centers, the birthplace and headquarters of Don Calò Vizzini, the highly respected Numero Uno until his death a few years ago. Pantaleone learned all about the Mafia in his infancy: It was everywhere around him, in the fear, servility, and resignation of many, the eternal mourning black of the women’s dresses. He learned to hate the Mafia and wanted to do something to free his people from the bloody oppression and degrading protection. He began writing a scholarly treatise, with a dissertation on the probable origins of the phenomenon, but when he got around to current events he could no longer hold his passionate indignation in check. He describes intrigues, complicities, bribes, shady business deals, threats, murders; he names every man who benefited by each killing, and every man who did the actual shooting. As a result, the book is a somewhat disorderly accumulation of terrifying stories, some government-shaking disclosures, others little more than Sicilian faits-divers. The author excuses himself in the Preface: “I have put together various writings…adding only a few essential passages to help co-ordinate them…Perhaps the results may still be uneven and fragmentary: if so, the blame must be attributed to the several parts of the book having different origins, its original nucleus having been completed with pieces conceived as journalistic reportages.” The anonymous reviewer of The Mafia and Politics in the Economist complained peevishly: “Surely a book worth printing is also worth writing.” This is, however, a pedantic objection. In fact, the confusion adds a dramatic and urgent quality to the book; the disorganized and breathless list of crimes and their complicated explanations reaches at times the cumulative effect of an avalanche. The defect of the book is a different one.

Nobody can deny the author’s courage. He denounces the complicity between Christian Democratic leaders and organizers in Sicily and the Mafia, backing his assertions with well-documented examples. He is not even intimidated by the power of the United States: He endeavors to prove that the American Army landings in 1943 had been prepared and aided by the Mafia in contact with American criminals of Sicilian origin, and that Americans are at the back of the Society’s current renaissance. He points his accusing finger at the predominant economic forces, the monopolists, the owners of vast land-holdings, the North Italian holding companies, the Banco di Sicilia, all partly responsible for the prevailing state of things in the island and the preservation of the conditions favorable to the Mafia. The book should have created a scandal and should have forced all concerned to take decisive action. Nothing much happened when it first came out in 1962. Not only was Pantaleone not killed by a shotgun blast of the thick lead pellets usually used for hunting lupi (wolves), called lupara, the efficient weapon employed by the Mafia; he was not even sued for libel. Nobody bothered to issue a denial. No magistrate used the newly published facts to start a new chain of investigations, which might have brought a few of the responsible leaders to justice. Even the anti-Mafia committee of the Italian Parliament filed the book away among its many documents and went on with its own work.

IN THIS PARTICULAR CASE, the impact of the revelations was deadened also because the author’s Marxist views are too simple-minded. His second-hand, optimistic, and adolescent ideas often prevented him from seeing the whole picture and building up a convincing case. For instance, he tells the story of the aid given by the Mafia to the landing of the American Army in 1943; he does not clearly explain, however, that the Mafia aided every successful revolution and landing of foreigners in Sicily, including that of Garibaldi in 1860, because the Mafia cannot afford not to be on the side of the winner in any historic conflict. At the present moment, it is working hand in hand with the Christian Democrats, who now govern the island. The Mafiosi deliver the vote in their districts and intimidate the opposition. Cabinet Ministers do not dislike being seen in public with notorious Mafia leaders or pezzi da novanta. (The pezzo da novanta is literally and figuratively a big shot; it is the last and loudest explosion in a display of fire-works.) The Mafia needs friends in Rome to displace unfriendly police officials or hostile judges, friends in the Regional Government to interpret the laws governing the awards of public contracts and the construction of buildings in new city districts. It must infiltrate all important government bureaus because one of the sources of its power is the sure knowledge of what is going on and what will happen tomorrow. For these reasons it collaborated whole-heartedly with the Bourbons, the Liberali of the Right, the Liberali of the Left, and, for a time at least, with the Fascists. It is therefore conceivable that, in the event of a Communist victory in Sicily, the Mafia will try to place its own men (or men easily blackmailed by it) in key Party positions, and will offer its precious aid to keep the people obedient and resigned to their fate. Pantaleone describes the help given by the Mafia to the landowners of the past, which allowed them, the Sicilian barons, to defend their property from the bandits and to keep the starving peasantry in a docile frame of mind. He does not attach much importance to the fact that now, when these estates are mostly owned or controlled by the Regional Government, the Mafia has successfully gained access to the organizations administering or distributing the land to the same starving peasants. Centralization and political control has, in fact, facilitated its task in many fields. It is not interested in land, poverty, or money as such. It is after power. Long ago it developed a natural technique to conquer and wield power, whatever form power may take at different times and places.

The phenomenon has always been too complex and elusive to be entirely enclosed within the limits of any theoretical scheme. The Mafia is notoriously two things, one of which, common to all Sicily, should be written with a lower-case m; the other—the Mafia with a capital m, the fluid organization, the secret, far-reaching elite which governs everything legal and illegal, visible and invisible—is to be found exclusively in the Western provinces of the island. (Marxists never manage to explain why, economic and social conditions in both parts of Sicily being virtually identical, one end of the island should have developed the Mafia while the other has always been free from it. They are also embarrassed by the fact that some characteristics and techniques of the Mafia were successfully transplanted to the United States, thousands of miles away in a law-abiding, democratic, industrialized society, but never took roots in Messina or Catania, a few hours distant from Palermo.) The two mafie are obscurely related. Surely one could be mafioso without being Mafioso, but a real Mafioso cannot acquire prestige and authority, and rise in the hierarchy of the organization, without being, at the same time, thoroughly mafioso.

THERE ARE NUMEROUS and improbable theories concerning the origin of the word. Giuseppe Pitrè (1841-1916), the greatest authority on Sicilian folklore, simply believed that it came from a dialect term common in the Palermo district of II Borgo expressing beauty and excellence. Palermitani, however, have a particular conception of beauty and excellence. You will hear the word used more frequently to describe a fiery and impatient stallion, a vigorous, multicolored rooster, a proud, overbearing girl with flashing eyes and stamping feet. People will say: “Mizzica! What a mafioso horse (or cock or woman)!” They admire the kind of beauty that is flaunted as a challenge, that is one of the visible aspects of power, the fatal beauty that will damn timid people who try to conquer it. The word first appeared in the criminal sense, with a capital m, in the title of a dialect play, I Mafiusi della Vicaria, by Giuseppe Rizzotto, which enjoyed great popularity in 1863. (La Vicaria was Palermo’s jail.) The approximate translation, at the time, would have been “The handsome and daring men of La Vicaria.” The name stuck. It has been commonly used by non-Mafia men ever since, but the Mafiosi themselves never use it. They prefer to call themselves amici, “friends,” “friends of friends,” and their organization “l’onorata società,” “the honored society,” or “the society of friends.”

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print