Mario Puzo
Mario Puzo; drawing by David Levine

With the publication of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather in 1969, the long-lasting passion of the American public for the Mafia finally came out of the closet. In practice it had long been an accepted but minor part of American city life and business about which nobody got very excited, but in theory it represented organized crime, sin, and the man-eating shark, and therefore had to be publicly execrated. J. Edgar Hoover, with his habitual nose for the real sentiments of middle America, carefully avoided choosing it as a target, and indeed refused to admit its existence until its involvement in the heroin traffic made it, at least for a time, genuinely unpopular. Hoover’s “public enemies” usually challenged the values of business society, at least symbolically. The Mafia, so far from challenging the values of “Americanism,” embodied them.

What, after all, could be more American than the success stories of penniless immigrant boys clawing their way to wealth and respectability by private enterprise? What legitimate American business tycoon ever objected to being called “ruthless,” to being credited (like the good boxer) with the “killer instinct,” or to the principle that “nice guys finish last”? Mafiosi were as close-mouthed as US frontier marshals in Westerns, or as Calvin Coolidge. They were—another trait that facilitated empathy—by no means intellectually inclined. Their substitution of private violence for state authority was as American as apple pie.

What is more, The Godfather could be seen to represent not only some of the continuing principles of the American way of life, but the ancestral ideals it had somehow inexplicably lost on the way. In Don Corleone’s world bosses were respected and loved by their subordinates as surrogate fathers. Men were men and women were glad of it. Morality rules unchallenged, and crime, for the most part, was kept off the streets. Families stuck together under patriarchal control. Children obeyed fathers, and virtuous wives were not afraid of losing their status to mistresses, nor did they dream of ripping off their spouses for alimony. No wonder New York magazine exclaimed (according to the paperback edition’s blurb): “You’ll find it hard to stop dreaming about it.”

American readers and moviegoers could therefore enjoy The Godfather without bothering their heads about the extraordinary island the Corleones were supposed to have come from, just as the followers of the Kennedy saga (real or mythologized) do not really have to know anything about County Wexford. Both are quintessentially stories about the USA. But what can they make of Mr. Puzo’s new book The Sicilian, whose action takes place entirely in the Sicilian past, and which purports to be a barely fictionalized retelling of the real life-history of the bandit Salvatore Giuliano (1922–1950), a distinctly non-American figure? For commercial purposes his story is loosely linked here to the earlier installments of the Corleone epic.

The literature about Giuliano, to which Mr. Puzo’s book adds nothing of interest, is probably larger than that about any other real European outlaw in history. There are three reasons for this. First, he became a major issue in Italian politics and therefore the subject of much publicity and documentation. The Italian parliamentary commission on the Mafia in the early 1970s devoted nearly eight hundred pages or almost a third of its report to his affairs. Second, he was the first European bandit to live in the high noon of the modern mass media, which gratefully gave him both national and global exposure. He made Life magazine in 1947.

But third, and not least, he was the last real-life member of an ancient species to whose extinction men and women are not yet reconciled: the “people’s bandit.” In the great soap-opera poor and weak people go on dreaming about human inequality and injustice, and there has always been and still is a part for Robin Hood. Turiddu Giuliano was the last recorded real person to be cast for it.

There is no doubt at all that he saw himself in such a role, insofar as any real brigand has done so, and that a great many poor Sicilians accepted him in it. It is mere Hollywood sentimentality for Puzo to make him vow to give half of his band’s profits to the needy, but one of the few honest cops to pursue him, the hard-bitten Lo Bianco, testifies to his distributing thousands of lire “more than once” to people in trouble. “For such people Giuliano was a god.” 1 And, one may add, for many other Sicilians who heard of such incidents.

If he had any instinctive politics, they were populist. The communists, whom he massacred from May 1, 1947 on, were amazed when he turned against them, for though he had been allied with feudal politicians since 1945 “throughout the entire period of the acute land agitation,” to quote their regional leader, he had “never interfered with the peasants.”2 It is even claimed by a serious writer that in his early days—before Mafia power had been fully re-established in the country-side—Giuliano had shown signs of principled opposition to the Mafia.3 In short, as an American journalist who interviewed him said, he was a Robin Hood—a good kid, a sincere kid, with only one thing wrong with him (which fits poorly into the stereotype of the “noble brigand”): he liked killing people. Four hundred and thirty of them, to be precise, in the course of his career.


Since we are all familiar with the Robin Hood myth, Mario Puzo has little trouble in concocting a macho version of a Mediterranean romantic novel and costume melodrama, which will surely make a gratifying movie when the right young male lead has been found. The hero is handsome as a Greek god. He has a buddy who will betray him, a mama who fixes him up with a mature woman whose sorrowful departure leaves him free secretly to marry a breathtakingly lovely long-legged teen-ager whom he sends to safety in America. (There is actually no evidence of any serious involvement with women by Giuliano, after an early hometown girlfriend who left for the US.) He works in a travel-agent’s milieu that was suitably reconstructed by the artist who illustrates the preview of the novel in Playboy magazine: sea, sunshine, greenery, hillsides with Greek temple ruins, and tables full of what the Sicilian peasantry no doubt fail to recognize as ethnic gourmet nosh. (The author’s style livens up markedly when he comes to describe food.)

There the tragedy of this doomed young man, an outlaw since the age of twenty in 1943, is played out. The real-life godfather of Sicily, Don Calogero Vizzini (1887–1954), in a diaphanous disguise, admires him and, lacking a suitable son, wants him to take over the business. But the noble bandit says—I quote: “I am now committed to free the poor in Sicily and I do not believe that the Friends have the same aim. They are the servitors of the rich and the politicians in Rome and these are my sworn enemies.” So, ’tis war to the knife between the disappointed father and the rebellious son, and, formidable though the young hero is (“He is cunning beyond his years and perhaps as brave as any of us here”), there can be only one end to this unequal contest. The hero is promised a safe passage to the US, then betrayed and killed in the usual Mafia manner.

All this tushery makes a good enough read for a plane trip and is more fun than the Gideon Bible. But what has it to do with the strange island that even its inhabitants find hard to understand, though, living in it, they think they don’t have to? But for the foreigner reading about Sicily making sense of the apparently incomprehensible is essential. Sicilian writers, who are nobody’s fools—Verga, Pirandello, Vittorini, Tomasi di Lampedusa, Sciascia—find their island so obsessively central a subject, sometimes their only subject, precisely because they know how vital it is to deal with that strangeness, which in turn reflects—in Lampedusa’s famous phrase—“a terrifying insularity of mind.” If these brilliant and subtle artists have trouble with Sicilianness, what can we expect of Puzo?

Nothing—but for his curious insistence that he writes not just as a storyteller but as a lightly disguised historian. His events, dates, and persons are real, their names immediately recognizable. The author plainly cares a great deal about his documentary bona fides, and though he doesn’t go for footnotes, anyone familiar with the subject will recognize the research behind the book, and how much of it is verifiable fact. Unfortunately for his status as a historian—but doubtless with an eye on yet another movie triumph—he has chosen to write neither “faction” nor fiction, but something combining the two, in the manner of the apocryphal film producer whose climax of his biography of Beethoven was the composer’s public performance of his latest opus, the Blue Danube waltz. Mr. Puzo, perhaps encouraged by theorists who claim that all reality is a mental construct, does not seem quite to appreciate that even one or two otherwise insignificant and dramatically beneficial changes in recorded fact may destroy a person’s entire credibility as a reporter, courtroom witness, or historian. But that is another question.

Now the historian, and especially the foreigner, can make a contribution to the understanding of a Sicilian story, especially since even the very uncertainties, lies, and confusions of the record provide precious handholds on the blank and crumbling rock faces of Sicilian reality. That is why much the finest treatments of the Giuliano story have come from outsiders pursuing the methods of the baffled investigator: Gavin Maxwell’s biography4 and Francesco Rosi’s marvelous film of 1961, Salvatore Giuliano. But to do this requires at the very least a knowledge of Sicily, Italy, and the world between 1943 and 1950, and of politics, of which Puzo shows no sign. He is thus almost obliged to turn his flesh-and-blood hero into a cliché.


For politics is what even Robin Hoods live by, especially if they hold out for seven years in a modern Western country. The crucial fact about Giuliano’s career, ummentioned in The Sicilian, is that shortly after the end of the war the landowners’ Sicilian Separatist party, which wanted independence for the island or possibly attachment as a state to the United States, needed an armed force and recruited Giuliano’s band to it, giving him a commission as a colonel.

This was crucial in two ways. It gave Giuliano, for the first time, real prestige, influential support, publicity, and muscle.5 It made him more than a purely local figure. But above all it turned the head of an ignorant country boy with vague, if sincere, ideals. In the words of the unsentimental Lo Bianco: “The Separatists appointed him as a leader and Giuliano got drunk on the idea that he really was one. He thought he had really become a big shot and went crazy. I called him ‘a madman’ because that’s all he was.”6 Well, he may not have been clinically insane, though even Puzo hints at an element of mental imbalance. But for hard-nosed Sicilians it was lunacy enough to take oneself seriously as a liberator of Sicily, or a political force in the island, or indeed to imagine that an outlaw could survive against the Mafia. They knew that in politics it is not enough to have a bandoleer, be photogenic, and command a few score hometown toughs.

In fact Giuliano’s tragedy was that the very situation which permitted a brave, sincerely rebellious, and perhaps charismatic young local killer to act out, among other things, his fantasy as the poor Sicilians’ liberator (“How could a Giuliano, loving the poor and hating the rich, ever turn against the masses of the workers?”7 ) had to make him into the rich Sicilians’ gunman, and eventual victim. He emerged in the political vacuum left by the Allied invasion in 1943, which swept away the Fascists. Nobody knew how things would turn out. Anything seemed possible. He died when everybody knew what the shape of the future would be: Sicilian regional autonomy in an Italy run by the Christian Democrats.

Giuliano’s story is that of the interim, during which the only people other than the Communists who had a clear idea of what they wanted in politics were the Mafiosi, who simply wanted to back the winning side, since their business is business and their profits are only where power is. Except that after 1943 it was far from clear who would win; the Mafia even tried a few halfhearted side bets on the Communists. Nor should we forget, though Puzo seems to, having fallen for his own myth of Don Corleone’s power, that in 1943, fifteen years after having been broken by Mussolini, the Mafia was weak and needed to rebuild. American support was no doubt an enormous and probably decisive asset, and military occupation a vast bonanza, but the Mafia was only just entering the big city thanks to the Americans and, thanks to peasant agitation and bandits, was not fully re-established in its old countryside bases. Its top men were still aging rural racketeers from the remoter corners of the inland corn belt.

Between 1943 and 1946 the Sicilian ruling classes, or significant sections of them, put their money on political separatism or monarchy and lost. Separatism never got off the ground electorally, except when backed by muscle: Giuliano’s home-town candidate and personal lawyer won Montelepre easily until the bandit dropped him, after which he got precisely twenty-six votes. Regional autonomy made independence unnecessary. Monarchy had plenty of Sicilian votes—two-thirds—but the national referendum instituted the Republic. In 1946 the causes of both independence and monarchy were dead.

Lacking a clear perspective, conservative Sicilians variously backed monarchists, separatists, neofascists, or the old prefascist Liberal party, as the tradition and calculation of local bosses suggested. Increasingly they were also drawn, for obvious reasons, to the party with government patronage in Rome, the Demochristians, initially somewhat distrusted because of their populist origins. The real Don of Corleone, the bloodstained Dr. Navarra, started among the Separatists, shifted to the Liberals, and finally offered his support to the Demochristians. In this situation of uncertainty the united left had room for maneuver. Carried by a major peasant land movement it scored an enormous and unexpected triumph against a divided right in the first regional elections of 1947. It polled almost 40 percent.

Giuliano had been left badly exposed by the collapse of separatism. For any other Sicilian or Italian regime he was simply an outlaw with a few dozen men. He stayed free because the political situation was confused, because he had the support of the Mafia, and because, in the classic understatement of the Anti-Mafia Commission’s report, “The police organs operating in the period of the Giuliano band behaved in a manner which was not always plausible.”8 The most he could possibly hope for was to be permitted to return to civilian life, i.e., impunity, or to take his band to some refuge abroad. (He had offers.) But even for this he badly needed to demonstrate his political indispensability, or at least usefulness, to people in a position to return favors.

Giuliano, or his advisers, had sense enough to know that the best way for a brigand to win friends and influence people in the year 1947 was anticommunism, of which he had not previously shown signs. And the triumph of the Sicilian left in the April elections provided him with an obvious chance to play this card.

The band thus became an anti-Red hit squad out of self-preservation. Whether he actually meant to kill and wound forty demonstrators from Red villages on May 1, 1947—the “massacre of the Portella della Ginestra” is wonderfully reconstructed in Rosi’s film—and who actually suggested this act of terror, are still open questions. But there is no doubt at all that the bandit announced himself as a hammer of the Reds (not least in a letter to President Truman) and attacked labor halls and Party offices in his area. Who put him up to it? We shall never know for certain and it does not matter. What we do know is that in the few days between the elections, when he had still backed the separatists, and on May 1 Giuliano was desperately negotiating with other backers on the basis of doing favors in return for immunity.

The strategy backfired. Nobody was against terrorizing the voters back into line, and in fact this was done within the year (498 people were murdered in 1948). In 1948 the Demochristians triumphed, doubling their vote, and without serious debts to Giuliano, a locally useful, but regionally embarrassing bloodhound. (For dramatic reasons Puzo concentrates the two elections and the massacre into a few weeks of 1948.) Nobody wanted any part of the killer of Portella della Ginestra, for this massacre became a major national scandal, magnified by the understandable clamor of the Communist party in Rome. The hands of the government were forced. Within months half the men later tried for the crime were under arrest, and defections from the band began.

Giuliano had to go. He had always been troublesome—too inclined, for one thing, to kill carabinieri for the tastes of the Mafia, which prefers to bypass rather than to defy the structures of power and law. He now became a triple liability: because his demands could not possibly be granted, because in despair he actually began to kill politicians and Mafiosi who “had not kept their promises,” not to mention policemen in large numbers, and because his survival itself was a standing reproach to the Rome government and stopped respectable Sicilian citizens from going about their murders quietly.

Why did he nevertheless survive? We need not accept the operatic theory (a version of which is followed by Puzo), according to which he was safe, so long as his friends had a written record naming names, notably those behind the massacre, and that he was killed as soon as he lost control of this document. It is a good story, and may even be true, though (in the best sources) it hinges on one Pasquale Sciortino who is supposed to have taken the document to the US, a man so spectacularly untrustworthy that one can hardly imagine Giuliano trusting him with his life. (The bandit had just forced him into a shotgun wedding with his sister.) And documents in murky Italian affairs disappear after as well as before death.

But who needs such melodrama? Giuliano was not some back-country hood, such as the Mafia were now handing over in large numbers, alive or dead, to grateful Demochristian authorities, but a man deep in Sicilian and national high politics since 1945. It took time and care for everyone concerned to disentangle themselves from him. Besides, apart from his local muscle, he had a genuine independent political base as a people’s hero. His elimination had to be considered rather carefully. Anyway, the grafting, politicking, and feuding within and between the various forces charged with arresting him, gave him, even at the end, some time to play with.

That time was borrowed. Once Sicily and Italy were politically stabilized, there was no room for such as him. What he did during his last two years made no relevant difference, though it was certainly not, as in Puzo’s novel, to turn himself into a champion of agrarian reform against feudal lords and Mafia. In fact, at this point, as Puzo sees his hero laying low six elderly pezzi di novanta riding on horseback like samurai to intimidate peasants, while a prince watches from his castle, the author’s vision of the film of the book has clearly got the better of him. At all events Giuliano was killed by the Mafia, though one wonders why Puzo missed an obvious tie-in with the world of Don Corleone, for the man who is said to have been in charge of the operation was an ex-American mobster from Partinico, Frank Coppola.9

He was found dead, in the posture photographed at the time and accurately described by Puzo, in a courtyard at Castelvetrano. Practically everybody who could talk has since died suddenly. Even the Anti-Mafia Commission twenty years later has left several corners of his career in darkness.

All Sicilian judgments on the dead man agree that he was an inevitable loser. For Puzo’s Godfather this was because he let sentiment get in the way of business calculations. His political enemies and victims on the left were more generous, though correctly predicting his inevitable end.10 For them it was obvious that social bandits without good political sense, aims, or advice inevitably became pawns and victims of the ruling classes, “even though you are loved by the people and surrounded by sympathy, admiration, respect and fear.” And yet such an end was “unworthy of an authentic son of the laboring people of Sicily.”

There is a third, and un-Sicilian, reaction to Giuliano’s death: Michael Corleone’s (and perhaps Puzo’s). In the novel the son learns the father’s lesson that live Mafia bosses are better than the dead heroes they have betrayed, “but it made him unhappy.” In some ways he “envies” the dead bandit, as Lewis Carroll’s Walrus weeps for the oysters he proposes to eat.11 Most Sicilians would read this as a normal piece of rhetorical hypocrisy for public consumption, but Puzo means his character to be sincere. He belongs to a culture in which it is conventional to believe, or at least half-believe, one’s own lies. Sentimentality, which Mario Puzo has poured over his hero like chocolate sauce, is not a good guide to the world in which Giuliano lived and died. This novel is an unworthy commemoration of a small figure in history, who deserved better. Fortunately there are others, like Francesco Rosi, who have done him and his world more justice.

This Issue

February 14, 1985