It is a well-known fact that a Sicilian writer (or a writer about Sicily) finds relatively few difficulties gathering colorful, startling, and tragic material. He simply sits at his table in Palermo or Syracuse and records his own (or his Sicilian friends’) childhood memories, what he happened to hear, café or bookshop gossip, what the cook casually learned at the market, or what his wife heard at the hairdressers. In a pinch, he can always blow up one of the morning paper’s insignificant local stories into an ominous novella, a demented tale of decaying aristocrats or a ruthless vendetta among peasants or underworld killers. Historians, essayists, journalists, moralists, and sociologists compile fascinating collections of outlandish true events with equal ease. Most of these books are anxiously read everywhere in the world except in Sicily. Sicilians consider them banal. Old ladies in Palermo said of Il Gattopardo: “We do not understand why so much fuss should be made of that novel. After all, poor Tomasi di Lampedusa only wrote what everybody knew.”

An exemplary demonstration of this disproportionate (and unfair) advantage of Sicilian writers over all others is Leonardo Sciascia’s career. Sciascia is, of course, one of Europe’s great writers and would presumably have become famous sooner or later even if born in Milan. But the ease and rapidity with which he achieved national notoriety as a very young man were typically Sicilian. At the end of the war, he was an elementary school teacher in a Godforsaken dusty town, his native place, Regalbuto. While his hungry, ragged, and rebellious pupils wrote their themes or solved problems in class, he idly filled one notebook after another with the daily chronicles of his town, the description of its characters, the curious anecdotes, the small events. He did not even suspect he was writing a book. The manuscript was snapped up and published by a North Italian publisher. It was called “Le Parrocchie di Regalpietra.” Sciascia became famous overnight. Non-Sicilian critics wondered how a man could have invented such a number of grotesque, incredible, and stupefying events.

The most illustrious example of all is surely Luigi Pirandello. Born in a village aptly called Caos (chaos in Italian), near Agrigento, he eventually became a badly paid, middle-aged philosophy teacher in a Roman school for girls. To make a little extra money, before he discovered he was a great playwright, he wrote hundreds of short stories, sometimes one a day. He simply set down what he remembered of life in Sicily in his youth. (He admittedly had another advantage besides his Sicilian memories. His wife had been raving mad for years, but not mad enough to be locked up. Her violent scenes made his life a hell, but supplied him with the absurd, meandering, delirious logic which was to make his plays world-famous.)

Pirandello wrote nothing about the Mafia, which was strange because, of all aspects of Sicilian life that can be turned into good copy with the greatest of ease, the Mafia is unquestionably the richest. What held him back? From it one can dig ready-made true stories which do not even have to be embellished, rich with intrigues, primeval emotions, corruption, ferocity, ruthlessness, heroism, mystery, fear, and death, stories which, like Renaissance or Greek tragedies, always end with mounds of bleeding corpses.

In the Mafia world one also finds a vast number of larger than life characters, some of them as fixed and recognizable as commedia dell’arte masks: the lone and taciturn chief, the peasant patriarch who magnanimously defends his protégés and destroys his enemies, but also the cold obedient killers, the wily and corrupt politicians, the sainted parish priest who handles dubious negotiations and blesses all corpses, the black-dressed Niobe who sends her last live son out to kill his father’s murderer or die, and now, in the last twenty-odd years, the new modern Mafioso, the smart, suave, university-trained young man, impeccably tailored and manicured, who speaks several languages, flits about in private jets to organize big deals, kidnappings, or the contraband of drugs and tobacco, with Harvard Business School efficiency and thoroughness.

It is therefore not surprising that books about the Mafia, good, bad, or indifferent, have been produced in a steady stream for almost a century, mostly written by Sicilians but many by mainland Italians and foreigners. The rate of their publication has gradually accelerated since the war, and has become practically torrential since the great success of Mario Puzo’s Godfather, book and film. The raw material is everywhere, in government reports, previous books, newspapers, and magazines. Stories can be picked up anywhere in Sicily, in Western Sicily to be exact, if one talks with landowners, journalists, lawyers, or policemen. As Tomasi di Lampedusa once wrote, it is amazing how few secrets there are in this most secretive and mysterious of all islands. Not only is the material easy to gather, but it cannot and does not have to be fastidiously checked. Nothing one learns can be confirmed anyway. You know that the very people who tell you blood-curdling, true stories will deny all knowledge of them if asked to confirm them in public.


The Mafia does not care what people write about it, anyway. It has so far as I know never sent a letter to the papers to denounce inaccuracies in an article or a book. It rarely sues anybody for libel. In fact it encourages deceptive information. It loves publicity, it wants the legend of its far-reaching omnipotence, occasional magnanimity, and ruthlessness to be as widely spread as possible but sees to it that no detail could be so precise as to be used by the police. When Mario Puzo (whose family, incidentally, is not Sicilian) went to Las Vegas for the first time after the success of The Godfather, he was unnerved to find himself surrounded by hefty, dark, and smartly dressed Mediterranean men, unknown to him. But they smiled, kissed him, offered him champagne, and thanked him warmly for what he had done for “the friends.” (The Mafia does not call itself the Mafia but “the friends,” “the friends of the friends,” or, like the Quakers, “the Society of Friends.”)

Few journalists, writers, policemen, public prosecutors, parliamentary committees, or criminologists keep Mafiosi awake at night. Whatever these people discover can seldom be proved. They seldom have to be eliminated. Mafiosi mostly fear (and kill) other Mafiosi. True, a diligent and meddlesome journalist, Mauro de Mauro, disappeared a few years ago without leaving a trace. He had evidently stumbled on some compromising information, which nobody knows, not even his wife, and had to take the secret with him. But although he lived in Palermo, he was not Sicilian, did not really know the fine rules of the game, and how far he could go. The chief prosecutor of Palermo, Pietro Scalione, was gunned down in broad daylight in a busy street a few years ago. Being Sicilian, he knew the rules too well. He thought he could play games with the Mafia. He had accumulated a vast quantity of accurate information and used it, presumably in the interest of justice but surely also in his own.

Few books on the Mafia are reliable. The best I have read (and I think I have read them all) is the latest to appear, Mafioso: A History of the Mafia from Its Origins to the Present Day, by Gaia Servadio. The author had unique advantages. She was born in Italy but moved to England to study in 1957. She is a hard-working novelist and journalist who writes and speaks both Italian and English. She can explain Italian mores to the British public, British mores to the Italians, and both to herself. The success of her latest effort is surely also due to this unique combinazione, her stereoscopic vision. In fact the book appears to be the product of two very close and intimate collaborators, both called Gaia Servadio.

The British Servadio, like most romantic Northerners, fell in love with Sicily long ago. She is fascinated by the Sicilians’ tragic conception of life, their ancient wisdom, their chivalry, their stoic acceptance of injustice, suffering, and death. She is horrified by the Mafia, fired by indignation over the many bloody murders committed daily by order of the capi, the ruthless exploitation of millions of innocent people, the pollution of political life, the widespread corruption and the paralyzing cynicism which prevent all social, economic, and moral progress. She burns to see things set right, the good neatly separated from the bad, the guilty sent to the penitentiary, the Mafia power humiliated once and for all. The British Servadio also seems to share an American faith in thoroughness. She obviously hopes that, if one gathers and classifies a sufficient quantity of reasonably accurate data, truth will spring out in the end of its own accord.

But Gaia Servadio is an Italian too. (She spells Italian words correctly.) She has learned that nothing in Sicily is ever exactly what it looks like. With a tiny shake of the kaleidoscope heroes turn into bloodthirsty tyrants, policemen into bandits, political reformers into shameless grafters, and vice versa. Therefore she sifts all her information and impressions through an Italian filter of incredulity and skepticism.

She knows that in more than a century every strategy devised to destroy the Mafia has failed, although each strategy was based on a new definition of its power and invincibility. In fact the Mafia seemed always to become stronger when persecuted, and to adapt itself to all new regimes, policies, and ideologies, as well as the economic and social progress of Sicily. In fact it rallies and makes itself indispensable to whoever wields power. In 1860, when Garibaldi and a handful of adventurous patriots landed in Marsala to liberate the island, the young Mafiosi, known as picciotti, waited to see how things would go, and when they judged that the regular army was bound to lose, joined Garibaldi. After the unification of Italy, the central government naïvely thought the Mafia was merely an organization of criminals to which rigorous and brutal police methods, the impartial, severe application of the law, and schools, roads, and free elections would put an end before long. The Mafia infiltrated the police, paralyzed the courts by threatening or killing key witnesses, and, by rigging elections, acquired omnipotent political protectors.


Mussolini believed that Mafia methods would weaken the Mafia. The society then went underground and established firm connections with many of the leading local fascists. When the Allies landed in Sicily during the last war, the picciotti and the leaders, known as pezzi da novanta, rallied to the American side, as they had rallied to Garibaldi eighty-three years before. Recent Christian Democratic regimes, allied with the Socialists, confidently believed that the island’s new political autonomy, public works, as well as public control or ownership of vast economic enterprises, including large landholdings and sulphur mines, would do the trick. The Mafia found this quasi-socialistic regime a nourishing terrain in which it flourished as never before. It filled the bureaucracy with its men, elected the political leaders, bought or blackmailed the rest, and practically ran the whole of Sicily. More roads and telephones made its work infinitely easier than when mafiosi had to undertake long trips on donkeys in order to talk to each other.

Now the Communists (who have been until now among the most resolute and sometimes heroic enemies of the Mafia) think that the society’s days will be over when and if they take power or share it with the Christian Democrats. The Communists (and Gaia Servadio) correctly believe the Mafia has always been an instrument used by the rising middle class to fight the old elite and to keep the proletariat in its place. This thesis is also common among Palermo aristocrats. They point out that in the old days, when the nobility still owned the large estates, the Mafia had little power. Noblemen were less easily frightened. The new bourgeoisie found the Mafia useful, collaborated with it, or joined it. Some of the new owners were Mafiosi to begin with, who acquired large estates with the help of “friends.”

The thesis that the Communists could destroy the Mafia is alluring but has still to be proved. In Sicily itself, as the Communists acquire more and more local influence they discover that somehow the local Mafia becomes a useful ally to solve some legitimate problems and to find shortcuts for others, and that it can absorb parts of the Marxist ideology with surprising ease. One is therefore tempted to doubt that the Communist strategy to destroy the Mafia, if ever put to a test, would be more successful in the end than those of the past.

To write this book Gaia Servadio has not only talked with a great many uomini rispettati, Godfathers, pezzi da novanta, policemen, relatives of victims, survivors, priests, lawyers, politicians, and journalists. She spent long hours in courtrooms where Mafia trials were being held, and visited some of the protagonists on the wind-swept islands where they were occasionally exiled. At the same time she has read and assimilated all or almost all the available literature, both Italian and foreign, including the reports of the parliamentary anti-Mafia committee; perhaps she has seen the contents of some of its most confidential files.

These are believed to contain the whole truth about the Mafia and all known Mafiosi but cannot be published or quoted, since almost nothing in them can be proved in a court of law. I was for years one of the committee members. The juridical expert Romolo Pietroni, a respected judge, a Mafia specialist, on loan to the committee by the Ministry of Clemency and Justice, sometimes showed me a few jealously guarded secret reports in strict confidence. Probably Pietroni also helped Gaia Servadio years ago, but surely not in the end, when she was finishing and polishing her manuscript. By then it had been discovered that the scholarly jurist was a Mafia emissary put in his position to keep track of the committee’s work and to leak its secrets to the proper persons. He is now in jail, allegedly for services rendered to Frank Coppola, an old Mafioso deported from the United States, the only one I know who managed to make a serious comeback in Italy.

Inevitably the best parts of the book are those reconstructing past events. This, of course, is true of most good books about the Mafia. Remote stories of rivalries, betrayal, and murder, whose participants have since died, can now be precisely reconstructed. The secret police files are now open to scholars. One can find out who ordered what execution and why, who carried it out and how. Gaia Servadio’s account of famous cases, like the stabbing to death of Marquis Emanuele Notarbartolo, director of the Bank of Sicily, in a railway carriage in 1893, or the killing of New York Police Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino in Palermo in 1909, are persuasive and exact, give or take the few details she had to reconstruct.

Exemplary, too, are her chapters on the remote origins of the Mafia. Her exploration of the name’s probable etymologies is precise. She excludes all previous fanciful, unconvincing, and often ludicrous hypotheses, like the one, popular among American authors, which explains the name as the initial letters of the words Morte alla Francia Italia Anela. The slogan was allegedly invented in 1282, when the Sicilians revolted against the French. At that time, of course, Sicilians spoke no Italian but only their own dialect and the concept of Italia was kept alive solely by a few literati and poets.

Gaia Servadio also clears the field of encumbering myths, like the one cherished until a few years ago by American law-enforcement agencies, baffled by their impotence, that the Mafia is invincible because it is an efficient and tightly knit world-wide organization, whose members speak an obscure language of their own which few specialists can understand. It is none of these things. It is, or rather was, first of all, an attitude of mind, shared by most honest and upright Sicilians, as well as by the criminal minority; a code of behavior, a feeling of solidarity and complicity, a particular conception of a man’s duties and rights—that all legal authorities are usurpers or, at best, other powerful people to be fought, neutralized, or made use of. This is the strength of the Mafia, or rather was until a few years ago, before the Mafiosi became big businessmen.

The Mafia, in the eyes of many Sicilians, is the informal way many powerful families and groups of families keep in contact and help each other. Its principal goal is neither crime nor the acquisition of wealth, but power, enough power to carry on its business in its own way and impose its will without being disturbed by the legal authorities. It does not consider killing its principal occupation. It kills only when and whom it is absolutely necessary to kill. In fact, when the island is peppered with corpses the Mafia is in crisis. It is most successful when nobody remembers it exists and the newspapers do not print gruesome stories of ambushes and massacres.

Its main business is mostly illegal, of course, but what big business does not present some illegal aspects? Naturally officials must be bribed, informers infiltrated, spies paid, traitors punished. Members of parliament must be elected with thousands of Mafia votes, enemies persuaded, threatened, or eliminated. Big industries and large landowners must be offered protection or bombed when they refuse.

The criminality of the important city Mafia of today must not be overemphasized. There is nothing a modern Mafioso, a really big man with a clean record, whose name never gets in the newspapers, likes more than to head what looks like a big legitimate business, carried out openly, and not to bother with drugs and tobacco. To be sure, he uses the Mafia methods, or threatens to use them, which usually is enough in Sicily or among the Sicilians who have emigrated to other parts of Italy; but he does so only rarely, mostly to prevent his competitors from establishing themselves and flourishing. There is only one difference between municipal graft in Palermo and anywhere else in the world. In Sicily, bank-notes are delivered in suitcases, secret deals carried out, profitable pacts made orally as they are anywhere else, but there the double-crosser, the man who betrays his word and does not deliver the goods, knows he is risking certain death.

If the Mafia were a mere criminal conspiracy it would be easy to destroy. It would have been destroyed long ago. Gaia Servadio not only clearly demonstrates why it is absolutely vital for the future of Sicily that it should be destroyed but also why it cannot be easily destroyed unless the century-old Sicilian conception of life is modified. That might take a very long time.

This Issue

February 17, 1977