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Godfathers and Sons

Sicilian Lives

by Danilo Dolci, translated by Justin Vitiello, with the collaboration of Madeline Polidoro
Pantheon, 304 pp., $6.95 (paper)

When a Sicilian speaks of going across the Strait of Messina, he may unguardedly say, “I’m going to Italy,” rather than “to the mainland” or “to the continent,” somewhat as Englishmen often think and speak of the lands across the Channel as “Europe.” Sicilians are offended, however, when an Italian from another region says, “I’m going back to Italy.” They are likely to ask brusquely: “And what is this? A foreign country? Africa?” In fact, traditional Sicilians embedded in their own ancient customs and codes and beliefs are clearly different from continental Italians. They seldom gesticulate or show emotion, for one thing; they are laconic, critical, and courtly (“I kiss your lordship’s hands,” or “Bacio le mani a Vossia.”) They are stoics who, when honor-bound, sometimes cause death or face death without hesitation, like Homeric heroes or medieval knights. With the growth of the urbanized middle class since the end of the war, the old-fashioned rural Sicilian, who wore ribbed velvet clothes, leather leggings, and a cloth cap, is getting scarcer. Nevertheless, even the sophisticated modern city dweller secretly preserves some of the old ways under his North European or American appearance and almost always reveals them in a tight spot or a serious crisis.

Granted these differences, one must nevertheless admit at the same time that no other part of Italy is in so many ways as intensely Italian as Sicily, to the point that it could be considered a concentrated extract of the whole country, because many Sicilian characteristics are familiar Italian virtues and vices magnified. There is little room in the island for the juste-milieu. Some of the greatest Italian patriots and war heroes were born on the island as well as a disproportionate number of draft dodgers (at least until a few years ago). We all know that the greatest organizers of crime syndicates in Italy and elsewhere have been Sicilian; but so also have been some of the most courageous and efficient policemen, as well as carabinieri, jurists, and impartially rigorous magistrates, some of whom lost their lives unflinchingly doing their duty. While the island has many obdurate, taciturn, and illiterate people, it has also given birth since remote antiquity to world-famous poets and writers, Theocritus, Stesichorus (technically an immigrant), and Salvatore Quasimodo, who won the Nobel prize in 1959, among them. Poetry in the Italian or “vulgar” language was for the first time written in Palermo in the thirteenth century. Most of the best recent Italian novelists were and are Sicilian: Giovanni Verga, Luigi Capuana, Luigi Pirandello, Vitaliano Brancati, Elio Vittorini, Giuseppe Tomasi, prince of Lampedusa, and Leonardo Sciascia.

The formal study of rhetoric was started in Syracuse by Corax circa 460 BC and now, centuries later, Sicilian lawyers and politicians are still filling, with cogent and ingenious argumentation, courtrooms all over Italy, their own regional parliament, and the national parliament in Rome. Sicilians, who notoriously have little respect for the state, its officials, its institutions, and its laws, nevertheless gave Italy some eminent statesmen (Francesco Crispi, Antonio Starabba, marquis of Rudini, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, don Luigi Sturzo, founder of the Partito Popolare, later the Christian Democratic Party, Mario Scelba, and others) and a large number of high bureaucrats and government officials, including some of the best diplomats. In fact most Sicilian young men dream of becoming civil servants, with a small but certain income, nothing much to do, automatic promotions, and a pension at the end of their careers. After all, the modern state we are still saddled with today, run by literate commoners and not by noble and ignorant courtiers, the “state as a work of art,” based on mounds of papers and archives, was invented in Palermo by a king of Sicily, later Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, “stupor mundi,” in the thirteenth century.

Sicilians are also infinitely more adept than other Italians in the ancient national art of surviving and flourishing in chaos (Pirandello was aptly born in a suburb of Agrigento called Caos), under tyrants, corrupt and rapacious viceroys, overbearing feudal lords, absent kings, distant and alien governments, and, above all, the uncertainty of the law, in a bandit-ridden country. This art, indispensable at all levels of society, from the lowest to the highest, notoriously consists of the cultivation of one’s own and one’s family’s power and authority, the capacity to intimidate, frighten, harm, or destroy threatening rivals.

Power and authority in Sicily can be preserved and increased in many ways: by joining the right group, marrying into a more potent family, acquiring grateful clients, and becoming a client in turn of some mighty personage, doing all sorts of favors to people of all classes who will be obliged to reciprocate, such as providing votes to a candidate who, when elected, cannot refuse any legal or illegal request. All this was not always illegal, not entirely a free-for-all, but was regulated by ancient unwritten customs, by a code based on the fading remnants of feudal morality, blind obedience to the chief, the obligation to preserve secrets at all costs, loyalty to a group, collaboration with one’s comrades at any price, duty to succor the weak and needy. This feudal fossil system may well have been preserved by the famous Sicilian puppet theater (as popular today as Western movies, and for analogous reasons) dedicated almost exclusively to the heroic feats of Charlemagne’s paladins, their Christian faith, noble sentiments, their defense of womanhood, and their contempt for death. The Mafia is a degenerate, criminal corruption of these decrepit customs.

The island, however, has never been, in spite of its geographic position, a peripheral, remote part of Italy and Europe, clinging to outdated ideas. It has been called a “morning country,” where political experiments, movements, and revolutions started before they started anywhere else. The Norman parliament at Palermo was created before the English. The 1848 revolutions broke out in Palermo on January 12, before the ones in Vienna, Budapest, Milan, Venice, Rome, Paris, and Dresden.

The extraordinary capacity of the Sicilians each to govern his own life according to his own needs and steer an individual course through the shoals of life has produced a wealth of intricate and bizarre family histories. Things happened and happen all the time in Sicily that are barely credible and could not have happened anywhere else. Non-Sicilian readers of Sicilian authors think they (the authors) are endowed with an amazing and diabolical imagination. Most of the time they merely relate and embellish the faits divers of their native town, the local gossip that they heard in the barber shop, that the cook brought back from the market, or wives told each other at the washing-trough or at the tea party.

An old Palermitan noble woman, astounded and slightly disgusted by the success of Lampedusa’s The Leopard, told me once: “I don’t see why so many people all over the world were fascinated by that book. It contains nothing more than a lot of commonplace facts everybody has known in Palermo for years.” When Pirandello was a young philosophy professor in a school for girls, he increased his modest income by writing short stories for a Roman daily, hundreds of them, which were nothing more than the record of ordinary everyday events in Agrigento and nearby towns.

It is no wonder that the island life has always fascinated other Italians and foreigners seduced by the green coastal plains, the barren rolling hills of the interior, the citrus groves called “giardini,” the golden Spanish baroque towns, the Greek temples, the Byzantine mosaics, the Norman cathedrals. Perhaps one aspect of the island life attracted some northern foreigners more irresistibly than other charms: the pity for poor Sicilians, their tragic and seemingly simple problems, the utter misery of most of its rural plebs, dominated and exploited by a few powerful and ruthless masters, the people’s resignation to things as they have always been and will always be. What attracted many of these well-meaning foreigners above all is the delusion that the problems could be solved, the Sicilians’ character changed, their dignity restored, a better, more abundant, and just life made possible.

I myself, a Milanese, could not help dreaming every time I was there how easily Sicilian life could be improved out of recognition. All it would take was artesian wells, irrigation canals, artificial lakes, dikes, sewers, roads, plenty of good schools, modern hospitals, good jails, incorruptible carabinieri and judges to enforce the law, farm machinery, modern factories to transform farm products, the sale of fresh fruit and vegetables to Northern Europe in the winter, but first of all, the planting of woods in the barren hills, the woods that the Romans destroyed to build their fleets. People’s lives would be duller, flatter, and there would no longer be picturesque, unbelievable stories for Pirandello or Lampedusa to write, but surely the world would be a better place.

One such well-meaning man who dreamed of changing Sicily is Danilo Dolci, the nearest thing to a lay, non-Church, free-lance saint. He is Italian, of course, but so peripheral he could be classified as a foreigner. He was born in 1924 at Sesana, in Istria, not far from Trieste, where his father had been a station master employed by the Imperial and Royal Austrian railways, Istria having been Austrian before the First World War. Dolci is a tall (one head taller than most Sicilians), fair, slightly corpulent man, with a firm jaw and light, sentimental eyes. His origins and his background are definitely Mitteleuropa. You would not be surprised to see him wearing lederhosen. He studied engineering and architecture in Milan and acquired a scientific and mathematical culture, which helps him believe that most problems, tackled with the proper technique, can be solved. Privately he wrote poetry (he won the Premio Internazionale di Poesia Taormina in 1975) and excellent prose; his books, animated by his love and compassion for the desolate island people and by his moral commitment, had a notable success, mostly in Northern Italy and Northern Europe, and gave him an international reputation.

He visited Sicily in 1952, fell in love with the impossible task of changing the island’s life, married a fisherman’s widow with children, settled in the village of Trappeto, had more children, and started to study earnestly, almost scientifically, the world around him in order to reform it. His zone of influence and activities curiously coincides with that of the Mafia. The Mafia is to be found only in western Sicily. For some reason, they do not flourish in the eastern part. (Some say the island people spring from two separate races, the Siculi and the Sicani, with dissimilar inclinations and temperaments. Maybe.) The Mafia hardly bothered him personally. They thought him ineffectual and powerless, a utopian dreamer, bound to fail, surely not dangerous. In a strange way, they are proud of him.

He gathered a large number of faithful followers and founded the Centro Studi di Partinico, to carry on sociological research. Contributions came mostly from abroad. He worked hard for thirty years, made speeches, organized meetings, debates, and demonstrations, invented slogans, put pressure on the apathetic and incredulous authorities in a variety of ways. He conducted rigorous surveys, including the recording of ordinary people’s ideas and recollections. He promoted many “counter strikes,” in which men, instead of stopping work, volunteered, without pay and official authorization, to carry out urgent public projects, dams, dikes, irrigation canals, or roads. There his engineering training turned out to be useful. He obtained many tactical successes but he did not manage to change the pattern of Sicilian life. His spreading fame also attracted a growing number of devoted foreign followers, mostly from the north of Europe and the United States, some of whom stayed and worked for him for years.

He has now published Sicilian Lives, an anthology of pieces from several of his previous books in which he had collected tape-recorded tales of humble Sicilians and a few not so humble. The book is a record of sorts of his thirty years’ work. It is extremely readable (one can imagine the stories as they would be rewritten and embellished by Pirandello or Sciascia) and significant because it is a moral panorama of Sicily as it was years ago and possibly still is.

The island now prides itself on its modernity, its brand-new motor roads, industrial plants (Priolo, where the Greek colony of Megara Iblea used to be, now looks like Galveston, Texas), up-to-date hotels, new apartment houses. Young people are taller, better fed, more sophisticated, less afraid, and more athletic then their parents. The new affluence is proclaimed everywhere, shrilly and often crudely. Cars fill the main country roads on holidays, beaches are crowded, new and expensive restaurants are overflowing with customers. The style of everything—buildings, interior decorations, beach establishments, cafés, cinemas, ladies’ clothes, bedazzling jewelry—is so daring that it reveals a polemical, almost desperate, desire to demonstrate the island is as up-to-date as Scandinavia.

The Mafia itself has changed. It deals in drugs now (which the grandfathers of the present Mafiosi considered a dishonorable occupation), manipulates zoning laws, controls elections, directs the flow of government funds to its own enterprises or those who pay it a tribute. It still kills people, of course, but only when it is absolutely necessary. It found it necessary a few days ago to kill, for the first time, a member of the national parliament—Pio La Torre, secretary of the Communist Party in Sicily, who died along with his bodyguard. La Torre was the obstinate proponent of a bill that would allow the authorities to abolish bank secrecy in order to ascertain the sudden increases in wealth of some previously impecunious people and thus identify the names of successful Mafiosi.

Fading and almost forgotten are the simple days of sheep and cattle stealing kidnaping young barons for ransom, defending maidens’ honor, cutting grapevines to punish obstinate landowners who refuse to bend to the Society’s will. Many Mafiosi are now university graduates, have excellent political connections, circulate in pseudo society, speak foreign languages, wear Roman-tailored clothes; most of their deals for billions of lire are almost within the law, as much as the deals in Milan and Turin anyway. Their style is that of the executives of multinational conglomerates.

Has Sicily really changed or have the Sicilians preserved their old way of conducting their lives behind the façade? Surely the shrinking of distances, television, foreign travel, a higher standard of living, education, and the mental climate prevailing in Europe will transform even the Sicilian psyche and conditioned reflexes one day. But it is too early, I believe, for deep and durable transformations to have taken root. Betrayed husbands still kill their wives or their lovers, but in a diminishing number of cases. More Sicilians accept being cuckolded without feeling their honor has been irremediably besmirched and has to be washed in blood. Brothers no longer shoot down young men who made love to their sisters. If they did, Sicily would be covered with corpses every morning, sex life having gradually approached northern standards. Yet all Sicilians still practice the ancient art of surviving and flourishing by the cultivation of power. They join the right group and pay allegiance to the proper protector.

Whether their ways have changed, or have changed only among the urbanized middle class, or whether they have not really changed at all behind the façade, Dolci’s book is a precious document. Nobody interested in Sicily can do without it. Old peasants have revealed to him the fear and humiliation of their lives more freely than to the parish priest in confession. After all, parish priests are Sicilian too, have relatives, and may probably belong to some powerful group. A friend of Placido Rizzotto, a young trade unionist murdered by the Mafia, told Dolci’s tape recorder an exemplary condensed version of life as seen from below:

All life here is a play. We know each other well. You know how the other guy thinks, but you’ve got to act dumb. You’ve got to be on your guard all the time and weigh every word. You tell me, is this kind of life worth living?

Because of this phenomenon, the few people who want to do something for the community are blocked, stifled, wiped out. We lose all our focus. It’s all clouds of vicious words, gossip in the squares, hot air in the assembly, blather in the courts. We’re all scared. Some show it, others don’t. A few of us flex our muscles, but inside we’re all jelly. We’ve been burned and not just once or twice. Just try to find here in Sicily one single conviction for a crime committed against a union organizer. When Judge Marcataio came to investigate the disappearance of Rizzotto, I was afraid certain interested parties would find out everything I said right away….

We don’t have to be beasts forever. The time will come when people will open their eyes.” That’s what Placido said…. How can I judge him? He’s dead. But that means he was wrong….

If you could live without lying all the time, that would be paradise on earth.

That says it well. The only way out of poverty, squalor, humiliation, and a defenseless condition is to play the old Sicilian game, don’t make waves, don’t try to reform things, serve the bosses loyally, do not ask questions, rise in the hierarchy, become if you can a boss, a landowner, a respected businessman with the right friends, an elected deputy in the government party. That cast of mind fatally retards improvements. Still, it is remarkable that many people (a growing number), including Danilo Dolci’s followers and people like Placido Rizzotto, refuse to play the game. Eventually they will win and change things. Perhaps Sicily will no longer be the same a hundred years from now.

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