Giuseppe Grassonelli, 49, who was handed a life sentence in 1992 for carrying out at least a dozen murders, has since earned a philosophy degree while in jail. This week he won a Sicilian prize founded by Leonardo Sciascia, one of Sicily’s most respected writers and Mafia chroniclers.
The shortlisting of Grassonelli prompted a furious reaction from Gaspare Agnello, a jury member and friend of Mr Sciascia’s, who resigned from the jury before prizes were awarded. Mr Agnello claimed that Mr Sciascia, who died in 1989, would have been appalled at the move.
Grassonelli had refused to become a government witness, said Mr Agnello, and “seeks a veiled justification of his actions, which he continues to describe as acts of war rather than Mafia murders”.
Grassonelli’s book, Malerba, beat a book by Cristina Chinnici about her father, an anti-Mafia judge killed by a car bomb in 1983.
Sonia Buscemi, a resident of Grotte, where the competition is held and where locals cast votes, said of Grassonelli’s book: “There is no voice for the victims. It is just the story of a vendetta, by the person who carried out that vendetta.”
But Carmelo Sardo, a television journalist who co-wrote Malerba with Grassonelli, said the killer had asked forgiveness and deserved his prize.
Mr Sardo said: “He has said he was a barbarous killer and has written to the youth of his home town, Porto Empedocle, asking to be forgiven for his violence.
“He didn’t want to give evidence against others because he wanted to be held solely responsible for his own crimes.”
But Mr Sardo did suggest Grassonelli was not entirely penitent. “When I asked him how many people he killed, he said, ‘The right number’.”
Grassonelli got his first taste of Mafia murder in 1986 when he was caught in a Cosa Nostra massacre in a bar in Porto Empedocle, which left two relatives and two friends dead. He discovered the mob had been targeting his uncle, a small-time criminal who had refused to take orders from the local Mafia boss.
Organising his own mob of young killers, who became known as The Stidda, Grassonelli launched revenge attacks on Cosa Nostra, sparking a mob war which left 400 dead by 1992. When he finally murdered the Cosa Nostra boss in Porto Empedocle, Grassonelli went on the run, only to be arrested.
Today, Stidda members are mostly dead, jailed or giving evidence, while Cosa Nostra lives on, recently recruiting a new generation of mobsters.
Mr Sardo commented: “In jail Grassonelli went from a semi-literate mobster to highly cultured philosophy student who read Dostoevsky and was described by his professor as one of the most intelligent people he had met.”
Gaetano Savatteri, president of the prize jury, said Leonardo Sciascia – whose 1960 novel The Day of the Owl lifted the lid on the Sicilian Mafia – would have approved of Malerba.
Mr Savatteri said: “We shortlisted the book because we wanted different views of the Mafia.”
He said a theme of Grassonelli’s book was the rights of prisoners, while Ms Chinnici’s was about justice. A third book shortlisted, a Mafia thriller, was about power – “all of which are themes which interested Sciascia”.
Grassonelli’s victory also marked the first time he could remember a Sicilian literary award being given to a book about the Mafia, said Mr Savatteri. He added: “In Sicily there is an idea that literature must not deal with the Mafia, but I believe it has the duty to do so. That’s why I am pleased this book has caused such a row.”