Cheats, shoots and thieves

Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia

by John Dickie

Hodder & Stoughton, 20

It is said that history is lived forward but written backwards, and of no history is that enigmatic statement more true than that of the Mafia. Knowledge available only today has made it possible to understand the past more clearly.

The new viewpoint was provided by Tommaso Buscetta, the Mafia killer who turned state’s evidence, and by the judge Giovanni Falcone. They collaborated and even developed a mutual respect, but no two men could have been more different. Knowledge of Mafia activities is a total antidote to any postmodern nonsense that everything is relative and there is no such thing as evil or good. Falcone was a good man and a hero, while Buscetta was a wicked killer and drug dealer.

Buscetta spent his youth as a man of honour, rising from the streets of Palermo to become "the boss of two worlds", a nickname given to mark his command of a drug trade between South America and Europe. The Mafia changes so as to remain the same, and Buscetta did more than anyone to modernise and globalise it, but the killing of most of his family in a Mafia war before his arrest gave him every stimulus to co-operate.

He revealed the presence of the Mafia in the international economy as well as its impact on Italian political life, but he also confirmed that the Mafia had a hierarchical command structure and an arcane initiation ceremony. This would not have surprised those whose knowledge comes from Hollywood movies, but it did shock intellectuals who viewed the Mafia as a mentality or a culture with no fixed structure.

The popular perception was nearer the truth. Buscetta disclosed that candidates were required to swear an oath to remain loyal to the Mafia and then to stand holding, without flinching, a holy image until it burned to ashes in the hand.

The Mafia does not forgive, so Buscetta himself had to spend the rest of his life in hiding, but Falcone was murdered. He had been promoted to a job in Rome but returned frequently to his home in Sicily. Someone in the ministry leaked details of his travel plans, and in 1992 his car was blown up on the road from Palermo airport, and he, his wife and escort were killed.

Contrary to popular belief, the Mafia is not an ancient organisation. It came into being around the middle of the 19th century, at about the time Garibaldi incorporated Sicily into the new kingdom of Italy. The fledging Italian state was unable to protect property, especially agricultural property, leaving the propertied class to fend for themselves or find unscrupulous thugs to do the job for them. A report from those times defined the Mafia as an "industry of violence", and that characteristic has never changed. The willingness to resort to violence, not the observance of archaic codes, is the defining mark of the Mafia.

Its existence was made quickly evident from a series of murders that horrified the newly united nation. In 1893, a banker named Notarbartolo resisted Mafia corruption in banking and was stabbed to death on a train near Palermo. His killer was a parliamentarian and Mafia boss, but it took years before the authorities moved against him. After three sensational trials in various cities in Italy, the killers were acquitted, but the nature of the Mafia and its links with politics should have been clear.

Instead it was still possible for many years to deny the very existence of the body. "Mafia! What is that? A kind of cheese?" asked Mafia boss Gerlando Alberti on his arrest in 1980, but the scoffing denial of the very existence of the "honourable society" was an attitude, whether expressed by mafiosi or self-serving politicians, which has served the Mafia well.

There is even little agreement over how to refer to the body. Mafiosi refer to themselves as "men of honour", but introduce members to each other by elliptical phrases like, "He’s the same thing." The word ‘mafia’ made its appearance in the title of a popular Victorian play set in a prison in Palermo, but although the word appears in the title, the playwright uses other words in the script itself. As John Dickie points out, over the last couple of decades the word has been replaced by the American form: cosa nostra.

This book, a racy, sprightly work which is short on analysis but strong on narrative and chilling accounts of the bloodstained events that have marked the Mafia’s history, is the first in English to draw systematically on the revelations given by Buscetta. It is a valuable work, not least because the Mafia no longer inhabits only a far-off land of which we know little.