Books: Artichokes with the Godmothers

Mafia Women by Clare Longrigg, Chatto & Windus, pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
Some say the Mafia is a grotesque parody of Mediterranean family life. Cooking comes into it. Cosa Nostra clans are often called cosche, after the Sicilian dialect for artichoke. The clans all fit snugly inside each other, tightly bound like an overlapping of leaves. For rival cosche, there is strength in numbers. So families must be large; the women must be strong; and the children had better be male.

Most books on the Cosa Nostra tend to exaggerate. Mafia women are dressed in black (the sinister weeds of widowhood) and sometimes they have a soupcon of a moustache. Or they are biological wonders with countless offspring and cauldrons of spaghetti. The Mafia matriarch is bad and dangerous to know.

Mafia Women recycles familiar information about blood vendettas and pseudo- Masonic initiation rituals. Most of the women here are either man-eating vixen or frumpy grandames. Women do often run the family in remoter parts of Sicily. Far from the ministerial benches of Rome, and any effective government, the family thrives just like the Mafia. And the Mafia mother's son can develop an infantile dependence called mammismo. Hence the northern Italian joke that Jesus Christ must have been Sicilian because he lived at home until he was 30 and presumed his mother was a virgin, while she certainly believed he was God.

Clare Longrigg has interviewed numerous Mafia women in Naples and the Sicilian capital of Palermo. "In the name of equality, I wanted women to be given a fair trial: in the dock with the men", she says. Women have been complicit in loan-sharking, labour and protection racketeering since Italy's unification in 1861. This is not surprising. The Mafia is deeply woven into the social, political and cultural fabric of the nation, involving favouritism and clientelismo in all walks of life.

Longrigg gives an amusing account of a Camorra wedding in Naples, where the newly-weds have come from the city's Casbah area known as the Forcella. However, we get no sense of the Forcella's beetling, black market activity or its obscure exuberance of life. Maybe we need to: the age-old poverty of Naples and the decay of its civic values have allowed the Camorra to thrive. Likewise, though much of Mafia Women was written in Palermo, the city is curiously absent from the narrative. Palermo's centre remains untouched since the Allies bombed it in 1943 and the slums are shell-pocked and poor. But the reader is only aware of this from an air-conditioned distance.

In fairness to Longrigg, Mafia Women does not pretend to be social reportage. It consists of interviews and some history. There is perhaps a little too much hyperbole. A lawyer's voice, for example, is "shot to hell by cigarettes", while a woman's eyes are "small and hard as bullets" (she's a Cosa Nostra widow, of course). A more serious book could have been written on Mafia women, combining the meticulous research of, say, Alexander Stille's Excellent Cadavers and the trenchant social enquiry of Giuliana Saladino (one of the heroines of Palermo's youth reform).

At least Mafia studies have come a long way since 1928, when the New York Times Magazine reported that the Cosa Nostra had originated among ancient Greek settlers in Sicily with Pythagoras as boss. Mafia Women is competent journalism, and grimly readable, if a little lightweight for its subject.