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Everybody’s Mafia

The Mafia Is Not an Equal Opportunity Employer

by Nicholas Gage
McGraw-Hill, 224 pp., $6.95

Honor Thy Father: The Inside Book on the Mafia

by Gay Talese
World, 526 pp., $10.00

The Godfather

by Mario Puzo
Fawcett, 446 pp., $1.65 (paper)

The Godfather

directed by Francis Ford Coppola

I

As with God in the late Middle Ages, all that there is to know about the Mafia seems to be known by now except whether it actually exists. Among recent exegetes, Professor Joseph Albini finds the evidence so conflicting that no single Mafia can be deduced. Like a street-corner rationalist looking for contradictions in the Bible, Albini believes that when two accounts differ they must both be wrong, and that separate names (Cosa Nostra, the Outfit, etc.) must necessarily stand for different things.

Nicholas Gage finds the fragmented testimony of such canaries as Valachi and Nicola Gentile sufficient to prove the opposite—with a secret society bound to silence, it’s about all the evidence you’re going to get. Gay Talese, who writes like a man on a tapped phone with a gun in his ear, suggests that there may indeed be such a thing but that the American branch consists by now of tired businessmen on the way down. Mario Puzo, as a novelist, has no professional opinion to offer, but knows a good myth when he sees one.

Puzo at least is right. The ineffable Norman Podhoretz recently ascribed our interest in gangsters to our need for success stories (given time, Podhoretz would undoubtedly find sublimated success drives in Love Story and The Sound of Music). But surely no explanation is necessary. The myth of feudal bandits dumped down on twentieth-century Brooklyn is so intrinsically fascinating that even the characters in the real thing, who ought to know better, are tempted to believe it, making it a fact in its own right.

For instance, several gangsters have congratulated Mr. Puzo on his uncanny portrayal of their profession in The Godfather, even though Puzo confesses (in The Godfather Papers)1 that he had never met a gangster in his life. Which means either that the Corleones are just a typical Sicilian family, or—somewhat more likely—that if you make a portrait brave and noble enough, people will see themselves in it somehow.

Similarly, much has been made by unbelievers of the fact that mafiosi never use the word Mafia. But in recent testimony in Boston, Joe “Barbosa” Baron did indeed use it, doubtless having picked it up in his reading. Hoods are as suggestible as the next fellow, and an old friend of Joey Gallo says that Crazy Joe used to think he was Richard Widmark before he had models closer to home. So we may get a Mafia yet, if those lines around The Godfather movie pay attention.

To judge from Albini’s book (which, allowing for special pleading excessive even in a scholar protecting his turf, seems to be a reasonably thorough historical study), the Mafia has always been a myth, but in this same potent sense of a religious myth, like a nonexistent saint who works real miracles. Mafia legends may be sturdier than the real thing. It is, in fact, virtually impossible to trace what became of the real thing between its alleged founding in 1282 and its re-emergence in 1860: indeed, even the founding is in doubt. The phrase “Morte Alla Francia Italia Anela,” which Gage blithely passes on as the origin of the term, could not have been used at that time because Sicily did not consider itself part of Italy (Albini, as usual, beats you to death with other reasons, but this one should do). But the basic legend of a local girl being avenged against a French officer provided a symbol with or without the slogan, a Garden of Eden, worthy of a man of respect.

The subsequent history of the Mafia suggests a series of ad hoc brotherhoods that folk history has somehow run together. For some thousand years, anyone who could rent a boat could occupy Sicily, and the natives found it necessary to improvise outlaw structures to cope with each occupation in turn. Obviously a myth of unbroken resistance could be used to lend legitimacy and authority to such kangaroo governments, and it seems likely that some groups claimed more history than they were strictly entitled to: for instance, the Beati Paoli, who believed they were descended from the Minor Brethren of St. Francis and still had powers of priesthood conferred in 1185. A secret society can always surface under new management and claim it was there all along—as to some extent the IRA has done in our own time. In Sicily, as in Ireland, the shortage of official history gave the field to unofficial history, and the cult of a 700-year-old Mafia has endured as an inspiration and occasional embarrassment to the present members.

Thus, anyway, Professor Albini. And since the links are undoubtedly missing, the historic Mafia may be called for now a functioning superstition. Gage and Talese both leap gracefully over some 600 years of Mafia evolution, allowing only that it seems to have changed sharply by the nineteenth century. Looking at our present version, one notes among American Mafia families little sign of the mystic continuity necessary for such long life. In Honor Thy Father, the Bonanno gang begins to split the moment Joe appoints his son Bill to the succession. Far from honoring such blood loyalty, the lower ranks mumbled about nepotism just like regular executives and jumped to other organizations for upward mobility. Even in The Godfather, which seems to exalt family ties beyond anything in actual experience, a rival gang leader takes it for granted that he can do business with the son if he can manage to kill the father first. The fact that he can’t may be why, in Oscar Wilde’s phrase, we call it fiction.

The gap between Mafia legend and fact is what makes the mafiosi so richly and, for them, inconveniently dramatic, whether for comedy or tragedy. There are certainly plenty of other gangsters, Jewish and Irish and whatnot. But how many of them believe they are blood descendants of a great patriotic movement? The stately sense of honor and loyalty makes even their silence dramatic. Nobody ever invoked the Fifth with such panache. If I were Sicilian, I would think twice before disowning them completely, cant notwithstanding. When Lucky Luciano guaranteed the protection of the Florida coast in World War II, he was doing no more than Francis Drake would have done. If they receive undue attention, it is not just because of bigotry, but because they are men to whom attention must be paid, knight errants gone wrong and not to be mistaken for your usual pig thief.

Of course it’s a myth. Out of the desperate history of Sicily, it would be too much to hope for such flowers. The style is miracle enough. If mafiosi really had the honor and loyalty they profess, they would not need to kill each other half so often. The famous Banana war,2 like all the other Mafia wars, was no tale of heroic vengeance but a squalid exchange of double-cross and triple-cross worthy of a major world power. And in all these books, even Puzo’s dithyramb, I found somewhat less loyalty and honor than in Albert Speer’s memoirs. What they would behave like without their myth of nobility shakes the imagination.

Perhaps the Mafia has traveled badly and American air doesn’t suit it. Young Bill Bonanno is as dismayed as his father before him by the decline in discipline among the younger hoods, although the more spectacular betrayals are still performed by the elders. But to judge from Barzini’s notes on the subject,3 or Albini’s, Mafia honor at best was barely enough for thieves to get by on. The early brotherhoods were desperate amalgams which found robbing in packs more effective than robbing singly. The early appearance of blood oaths indicates how little spontaneous trust there ever was among them. One theory on the mainland was that they were really Arabs anyway, and perhaps there is an Arab touch to their individualism and paranoid gallantry; but mostly what they were was starving.

Anyway there is no occasion for funny blood theories. The Sicilians were as adaptable as anyone else would be whose history keeps coming unstuck. One colonization is bad enough; numerous ones splinter the personality to madness. The spiritual response, as in Ireland, was to give themselves more tradition than they needed. But the physical response was to cooperate with every invader who came along, from the Bourbons to Garibaldi to the American army in World War II. And even over here they are ultrapatriots to the legitimate non-Sicilian government. Far from being a national liberationist movement gone sour, the Mafia could almost be defined as those who sold out first and best, the supercolonials. And of course they sold out the only thing they had to sell, their own people. What they offered in each case was the same gimcrack feudalism, based on a patron-client network, claiming all kinds of bloodlines but in fact being a shifting meritocracy of courage, shrewdness, and cruelty.

When they came to this country, the Sicilians found only one trifling difference in political organization from what they were used to. Instead of a new government arriving every few years, new subjects arrived, causing roughly the same net effect of institutional unraveling. Theoretical legitimacy might exist in Washington and in those remote backwaters known as state capitals, but actual social legitimacy had to be established over and over again with each new group. This was pre-eminently the land of the ad hoc brotherhood and the kangaroo court. From Grand Kleagle to baseball commissioner, private law always existed alongside public, and an immigrant could be pardoned for confusing the two.

In the cities where the Sicilians settled, the Irish had already established their own legitimacy. One way and another (history records no clean ones), they had captured the official titles and were the “law.” But Sicilians were not fooled by this. The city machines were no more the law than the Bourbons had been. In fact, the Sicilian saw nothing much here to surprise him: patronage and pay-off, justice as political adjustment, cops as mercenaries, politics in the raw, too young to cover itself respectably. It is Albini’s contention that the Mafia was imported solely as technique, but even this was hardly necessary, since everything but the language was already here, from Tammany down to the Irish betting parlors.

That, for Albini and to some extent Talese, is that. Standard Mafia apologetics leans hard on this similarity to other American institutions. Bill Bonanno, through his mouthpiece Talese, broods at length over the hypocrisies of private business and public justice. What are we doing that’s different? he says. (The persuasiveness of this defense depends partly on how you feel about other American institutions.) Albini for his part sees no need to conjure up an international conspiracy. Mafiosi tend to be intensely local. They haven’t even infiltrated eastern Sicily, let alone the Italian mainland (recent news reports say they have, but every crime wave looks like Mafia to mainlanders). Wherever a local situation demands it, some Sicilians will fall back on Mafia technique, forming secret brotherhoods, enforcing their own laws (rather heavy on capital punishment, but what can you do when you haven’t got prisons?), and making whatever deals they can with the current Bourbons; even, perhaps, pretending to a history, a continuity, that isn’t there.

  1. 1

    The Godfather Papers and Other Confessions, Putnam’s, 252 pp., $6.95.

  2. 2

    Presumably so called because the name Bonanno captured the fancy of the New York Daily News headline writers.

  3. 3

    Luigi Barzini, From Caesar to the Mafia, Library Press, 335 pp., $8.95.

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