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…

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