If we know anything about the dark, secretive world of the Sicilian Mafia in the first turbulent years after the Second World War, it is largely thanks to Danilo Dolci. This was a time when the island was in the grip of a vicious Cold War struggle between the interests of disenfranchised agricultural workers, and those of the landowners and the racketeers, who for reasons of political expediency - building a bulwark against the Communists and trade unions - found themselves co-opted by the Church and the Christian Democrat party.
During these years the word "Mafia" never passed the lips of ordinary Sicilians, for reasons of cultural pride as well as fear, and was profoundly misunderstood by the Italian intelligentsia. In an era when most Sicilians were illiterate and spoke nothing but dialect, language itself became a barrier that the mainland could not penetrate.
Dolci's great merit was to live the Sicilian experience at grass-roots level, to conduct painstaking investigations into living conditions, how power was devolved, and the creeping grip of criminality, and to communicate these things through the considerable power of his writing and poetic sensibility. Along with his contemporary the novelist Leonardo Sciascia, he was instrumental in getting Sicilians to face up to the peculiarities of their own culture and society and inspiring them to fight for change.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Dolci published a series of books (notably, in their English translations, To Feed the Hungry, 1955, and Waste, 1960) that stunned the outside world with their emotional force and the detail with which he depicted the desperate conditions of the Sicilian countryside. He launched campaign after campaign, modelled closely on Gandhi's examples of non-violence and civil disobedience, to secure such basic human rights as access to clean water and sewage.
Dolci became convinced that the key to progress was through education, and set up his own study centre in Partinico, the village in the Palermo hinterland that became his home. His pedagogical methods, with their emphasis on social awareness and cultural interaction, won him a world-wide reputation, and a small but ardent following at home that took his ideas, over the years, across Sicily and into mainland Italy.
In many ways, Dolci was ideally placed to take up this ground-breaking, almost missionary, role. He had Sicily in his blood from his father, but was born at the other end of the country, near Trieste, to a Slovenian mother. He thus possessed both insight into and distance from Sicilian culture. After taking a degree in architecture from Milan University, he travelled south almost by chance - following his railwayman father, who decided in mid-career to move back home.
In Sicily Dolci was protected to some degree by his international reputation, but nevertheless suffered humiliation after humiliation - less at the hands of Cosa Nostra than at the hands of the state authorities. Ernesto Ruffino, the Archbishop of Palermo who notoriously denied the existence of the Mafia as late as the mid-1960s, dismissed Dolci and his followers as besmirchers of Sicily's good name. In 1967, a triumvirate of powerful Christian Democrat leaders reacted violently to his denuncations of their links to organised crime and succeeded in having him jailed for libel.
The following year, an earthquake devastated the Belice valley near Partinico and Dolci was under fire again, this time for embezzling overseas funds sent to help the victims. At the same time, some of his followers accused him of excessive authoritarianism and left to set up their own educational centres.
In an atmosphere as poisoned as Sicily's, it is hard to fathom the truth of such allegations; whether to conclude that he did indeed think a little too much of himself, or that he was the victim of jealousies big and small that conspired to undo him. The smears certainly succeeded in pushing Dolci out of the limelight in his own country - for the last 20 years of his life he disappeared from public view. But he continued to be revered abroad, winning prizes for his poetry, and working as a guest lecturer at universities in the United States and Sweden.
If anything, Dolci was a victim of his excessive honesty, not his lack of it. He refused to answer to anybody and never joined a political party despite several invitations from the Italian Communist Party to run for office. Much of his life was lived through symbolic acts: his first wife, Vincenzina Mangano, was the widow of a trade unionist whom he rescued from penury and whose five children he adopted as his own. In the 1970s he rebelled against the state monopoly on broadcasting and set up his own radio station in Partinico in the face of stiff resistance from the police.
His death has triggered a curious mixture of reactions. While the chief anti-Mafia prosecutor in Palermo, Giancarlo Caselli, said Dolci was one of the people who gave him the keys to do his job, the national press gave him surprisingly short shrift, describing him as a historical curiosity whose work has long since been forgotten. Danilo Dolci, it seems, is no less troubling a figure now than he was in those dark, illiterate days of the 1950s.
- Andrew Gumbel