What do you think about representations of the mafia in popular culture – films and literature? Are the portrayals wide off the mark? Also, to what extent do you think that the mafia as an organisation is aware or influenced by these representations? To put it another way, does today’s mafia vainly try to live up to the stereotypes portrayed in films like The Godfather?
I think what the reviewer who referred to ‘rebranding’ had in mind is my attempt to take the mafia seriously. And that is what drew me to the subject in the first place. What most people know about the mafia comes from the US entertainment industry. The whole American mob genre–all the books and films that have sprung from the loins of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather – isn’t really about the mafia at all. Hollywood has used the mafia to talk about what it means to be a man, about the pressures of juggling the responsibilities of family and work, about the dark side of the American dream, or even just to peddle cool images of laconic blokes in sharp suits. And in all that, the fascinating, tragic, scandalous story of what organized crime has done in Sicily has been lost from view. It’s difficult to imagine Al Pacino playing the part of Giovanni Brusca, who dissolved a 12-year-old boy in acid because his father had betrayed Cosa Nostra.
The mafia in Sicily has always been aware of how it is represented, and mafiosi are directly responsible for some of the mystifications that have been spread–like the nonsense about the mafia having Arab origins, for example. Yet the media has also had an influence on the mafia’s own view of itself. It is often said, even during mafia initiation rituals, that the mafia originated as a medieval sect called the Beati Paoli who defended the weak against the powerful and unscrupulous. That idea probably started with a swashbuckling novel about the Beati Paoli published in Palermo early in the twentieth century. In other words, some early mafiosi liked the story, and borrowed it for their own purposes; later gangsters simply began to believe in what had first been spread as the association’s own propaganda.
You take an interesting argument from Franchetti’s Political and Administrative Conditions in Sicily [A study published in 1877], that the Mafia are in essence an entrepreneurial association specialising in the sale of violence. Moreover, it was the absence of a State monopoly on violence that empowered it. In the transition from feudalism to capitalism, what was it about Sicily in particular that created the conditions for the Mafia?
Apart from capitalism and a weak State, there are two other key ingredients that went to form the mafia. The first is a strong tradition of political conspiracy. Rather like some members of Republican and Loyalist terrorist groups in Northern Ireland who are also gangsters, many of the very earliest mafiosi were both criminals and patriotic conspirators, or at least moved in that milieu. The second ingredient is lemons, as I explain in my book. In other words, a very valuable and very vulnerable cash crop that tied western Sicily into the world economy.
For many, in the media certainly, the moment when Tommaso Buscetta turned supergrass represented the first breakthrough in the struggle against the mafia [Buscetta, an important figure in Cosa Nostra, gave testimony to Falcone that played a fundamental part in the maxi-trials held in Sicily in the 1980s] . In reality, your book documents the numerous occasions where similar attempts were made, legally and politically, to combat the mafia. What was different about Buscetta’s testimony? Was it as unique as we’re led to believe?
In my book I tell the story of Francesco Siino, the ‘regional or supreme capo‘ of the Palermo area in the 1890s, who turned to the police when he was defeated in a mafia war. (Significantly, it seems to have been his wife who convinced him to talk.) But in court, when it became clear that the case based partly on his confessions was falling apart, Siino retracted. Mafiosi, usually defeated ones, have been talking to the police since the outset. What is distinctive about Buscetta is simply that he was the first mafia supergrass to be believed. He was believed because there was a magistrate, Giovanni Falcone, with the courage, empathy and intelligence to take his testimony seriously. And because of Falcone, Buscetta went into far more detail about Cosa Nostra, and about what it means to be a man of honour, than anyone had done before.
Buscetta’s testimony was history-making in a quite literal sense. It was his insider’s picture of the Sicilian mafia that led Italian historians to look again at the evidence and re-write the story of the mafia completely. It’s the work of those historians that I have brought together in my book.