PETRA Reski explains to David Robinson how she was blinded by The Godfather‘s glamour, but has now seen the light about the Mafia.
Petra Reski remembers the first time she went to Corleone. It was 1979, she was 20 and had seen and loved The Godfather. So it made a kind of sense, that summer, to drive south from her home in the Ruhr to the Sicilian Mafia stronghold. What, she wondered, was the fictional hometown of The Godfather really like?
Back then, she knew nothing about the Mafia. So when, after four days in her fiancé’s battered Renault 4, they arrived in Corleone and saw nothing more than a dusty, unimposing town where not a single scene in Coppola’s masterpiece had been filmed, they went off to the beach instead.
These days, she knows a whole lot more about the Mafia – so much in fact, that she has grown used to being threatened by them. “They don’t mind me writing about the Mafia in Italy,” she explains, “but they draw the line at me writing about the Mafia in Germany. They want to keep that quiet.”
Reski is furious that the English translation of her latest book, The Honoured Society, has just been published with a few blacked-out sentences in passages in which she explains the background to the 2007 Duisburg massacre, the result of a feud between rival gangs in the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta, easily the most powerful of the Italian Mafias. The censorship was ordered by a German court after two Calabrians accused her of slander, even though their names had already been linked to the ‘Ndrangheta in the Italian press.
“Some people said to me I must have been delighted when my book was censored because the publicity undoubtedly gave it more readers,” Reski tells me from the Venetian palazzo in which she now lives. “I can assure you that it was the worst moment in my life. I felt that in Germany such things couldn’t happen. I felt so humiliated on my nation’s behalf.
“In what I wrote, I was quoting from an abundance of documents. I have transcripts of German investigations into the Mafia, Italian investigations, ones by the federal police and by public prosecutors. It’s all so well documented. That’s why we are going to appeal this to the highest court in the land, the Constitutional Court. There’s no date set yet, but I hope it will be this year.” One thing the Mafia must surely have realised by now: Petra Reski, feistily articulate in three languages, doesn’t give up easily.
Compared to Italy, Reski points out, police in Germany – and, she adds, Scotland too – have far fewer tools with which to take on the Mafia. In Italy, Mafiosi can be bugged both in public places and in their homes, be jailed for Mafia membership, and have their property confiscated if there is even a suspicion of their involvement in organised crime. If they want to set up money-laundering businesses, in other words, there is every incentive for the Mafia to do so outside, rather than inside, Italy. “As long as it is only money laundering,” she points out, “most governments turn a blind eye.”
As Reski admits, though, that first time she visited Corleone she had been blind to the Mafia’s presence herself. Even before Mario Puzo’s novel and the Coppola films, the town was a byword for criminal violence. In his 1964 book – also called The Honoured Society – British travel writer Norman Lewis, wrote: “In this world one occasionally stumbles upon a place which, in the physical presence, and the atmosphere it distils, manages somehow to match its reputation for sinister happenings. Such a town is Corleone. A total of 153 murders took place there between 1944 and 1948 alone.”
Norman Lewis was helped in being able to write a history of the Mafia by the fact that his first wife’s father was a member of the organisation. Reski had no such familial assistance: the roots of her interest lay instead in those fighting it. In 1989, at the time of the so-called “Palermo Spring”, it even looked as though they were winning.
These were, she says, days of hope. “Back home the Berlin Wall had fallen, and in Sicily it looked as though it would be possible to eradicate the Mafia. As Giovanni Falcone [the legendary anti-Mafia public prosecutor assassinated in 1992] always said, the Mafia is a human organisation and as such it has a beginning and it will have an end. At the time, I believed that. Now I realise that the Mafia is much, much bigger and more powerful than I ever imagined.”
Perhaps it is only because she has had a glimpse of what a Mafia-free Sicily could be that she has written about the Mafia ever since. The men and women who courageously stood against it – people like anti-Mafia politician Letizia Battaglia and her beautiful photographer daughter Shobha – became her friends. The political became personal.
And that, for me, is the strength of her new book. There is no shortage of books about the various branches of the Mafia, and few yawning gaps in our knowledge of its history, especially of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra. True, there is hardly anything about the Apulian Mafia, and before Roberto Saviano’s Gomorra there was precious little about the Neapolitan Comorra. Granted, too, Reski’s writing about the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta – with an annual turnover of e44 billion the wealthiest of all the Mafias, thanks in part to its control of Europe’s cocaine trade – casts new light on an all-too-often neglected criminal organisation.
But Reski is the kind of journalist who doesn’t just give the reader facts. She takes them with her, to Sicily and the deep south of il bel paese. In her writing, there is colour, warmth, friendship, gossip. We get to know about her driver’s love life, watch a Mafia lawyer jump into a fountain on her wedding, chat to a Comorra impresario as the financial police pay him a visit, laugh as Shoba deals dismissively with would-be suitors. And then there are the stories, piles of them, each of which could be turned into a film. Take the story of Rita Atria, the subject of Reski’s own first book. Rita is 11 when her father, a Mafia boss, is murdered, 16 when her brother meets the same fate. This is the time of the Palermo Spring; the maxi-trials are rounding up hundreds of Mafiosi and this time, for a change, they are all being sentenced to jail. Rita decides to help public prosecutor Paolo Borsellino, then in 1992 he is assassinated. Without him, she feels lost: her mother has already rejected her. Three weeks after his death, she jumped to her death. She was only 17.
Letizia carries Rita’s coffin into the church at Partanna with other pallbearers from Women Against the Mafia. The mother doesn’t attend. A few months later, she visits her daughter’s grave. There’s a photo of her on it and an inscription “The Truth Lives”. The mother – whom Reski interviews – takes out a hammer from her handbag and carries on hitting and hitting the gravestone until it shatters.
Somewhere in that story, I think, is the reason so many of us remain fascinated by the Mafia. It is probably the same reason Reski felt compelled to visit Corleone in the first place when she had just seen The Godfather and been swept away by its deep, but deeply amoral, family values. What would life be like if the family was all that counted, and we had to defend it against a hostile world: as Mario Puzo always pointed out, his novel was about the family more than about crime. Maybe. But the added lure of secrecy and danger on two fronts didn’t do his sales any harm either.
Another story, another pentito. Reski interviews Mafioso supergrass Marcello Fava in a secure location, although she is forbidden from asking him about his crimes. He is not high-up in his Palermo gang, but at least he’s somebody: he has taken the oath with the blood dripping onto a saint’s picture which is then burnt, so at least he matters. He can jump the queue in the shops and be told “It’s all been taken care of” at the till. Apart from the first murder – a boy he knew – his crimes didn’t seem to have left their mark on him. But not seeing Sicily again, not eating chick-pea fritters or roasted calves feet in the Piazza della Kalsa, never again seeing any of his 80 relatives, at their weddings, funerals, first communions, blaming himself for his wife’s miscarriages: all of that hurt, and always will.
So yes, there is full-bodied drama in these lives, and from the outside it can be seductive. But Reski has gone in deeper. She knows the dismal, brutish reality behind the Godfather glitz. It annoys her that she can’t think of a single film that doesn’t glorify the Mafia by highlighting its power. And maybe because at first she was taken in, she is resolutely on the other side, on the side of murdered prosecutors Falcone and Borsellino and the quiet heroism of those who resist the 3 per cent “security tax” (protection payments). On the side of the state, at least when the state decides to stay uncorrupted, as it manifestly didn’t under Berlusconi, but might – just might – now.
There is, she says, just a glimmer of hope. It’s not much more than that because the credit crunch is good for Mafia business. On the other hand, political uncertainty is bad for them: they don’t know who to bribe.“That’s what happened in the Palermo Spring,” Reski points out. “The Christian Democrats had been backed by the Americans as a bulwark against the Communists who were historically always strong in Italy. As the Mafia always goes to where the power is, that meant that they had very close links with Christian Democrats. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Christian Democrats virtually disappeared, and the Communists changed and the Mafia were casting around for who to support before Berlusconi came along.
“Berlusconi was a good friend to the Mafia but now he is effectively gone and the right-wing Liga is low in the polls, so it is an interesting moment as no-one knows which side is the best bet for long-term power. People always underestimate the impact of geopolitics on the Mafia, but it is real enough. And in Palermo, Leoluca Orlando is mayor again, just as he was at the time of the Palermo Spring, so perhaps change is in the air.”
After The Honoured Society, with its blacked-out sentences, Petra Reski wrote another book in which she repeats that journey she made all those years ago, from her hometown in Kamen, Germany, to Corleone. “It’s a sort of Grand Tour of Mafialand,” she laughs. “It’s just to show them, OK – if you try to threaten me, this new book is my answer.”
• The Honoured Society: The Secret History of Italy’s Most Powerful Mafia, by Petra Reski, is published by Atlantic, price £14.99.
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