The Society of Friends

Mafioso: A History of the Mafia from Its Origins to the Present Day

by Gaia Servadio
Stein and Day, 302 pp., $10.00

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…

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