BOOK REVIEW / Metal hearts, dead birds and the Mafia octopus: 'The Sicilian Mafia' - Diego Gambetta: Harvard University Press, 24.95

Share
Related Topics
WITH ITALY's premier statesman, Giulio Andreotti, on trial for Mafia association, it has become abundantly clear that the problem of Cosa Nostra is still more serious and far-reaching than even the bleakest pessimist had supposed.

A timely arrival, therefore, is made by this refreshingly unglamorous study of the Sicilian Mafia. Sensationalist mafioso iconography is either coolly dissected - even the wearing of dark glasses is placed in a historic perspective - or relegated to an appendix. Among an array of new Mafia books appearing in Italy, generated by abundant new material available from police investigations and mafioso confessions, this is the most level-headed and scholarly.

Diego Gambetta depicts the Mafia as 'a specific economic enterprise, an industry which produces, promotes and sells private protection'. He fleshes out this conceptual framework with elegant thoroughness, covering origins, markets, resources, cartels and trademarks. The conclusion most likely to surprise is the extent to which protection may be desired and even sought after by the client - as Gambetta says: 'While some may be victims of extortion, many others are willing customers.'

The fact that people not only fear but also need the Mafia has its genesis in poor government. Both the Republic and the feudal barons that preceded it have consistently failed to provide protection for the Sicilians, so that 'it is common instead to turn to the local man of honour' as Judge Giovanni Falcone said. Gambetta, in a helpful overview of the possible origins of the Mafia, sums up masterfully the conditions leading to its rise: 'A persistent lack of trust fuelled by the dying embers of feudalism and combined with the rise of a sinister breed of protectors from the ashes of the ancien regime'.

This corrupted Robin Hood theme brings to mind Norman Lewis's classic book, The Honoured Society, in which the early Mafia is described as the peasant's refuge against the worst abuses of the Middle Ages. Although it now exploits rather than protects the underdog, the Mafia still benefits from a moral climate formed in past centuries. To this day, perversely, Cosa Nostra 'has done its bit to stop Sicilian society disintegrating into complete chaos', as Judge Falcone said in his book Men of Honour. This is the disturbing impression left after reading The Sicilian Mafia, that although Mafia management impedes the economy by suppressing competition, the local perception is that 'the Mafia puts things in order and keeps people in their places'.

Gambetta's business-like approach dismantles various myths concocted from a mixture of bogus and genuine sources. He shows how many quintessentially Mafia- like symbols in fact originated in literature or the media, a classic example being a real-life Mafia wedding at which the The Godfather theme was played, as it was 'deemed to have just the right touch of sentimentality'.

This is not to detract from the power of symbolic messages and threats used by the Mafia. Gambetta tells of sinister deliveries such as metal hearts perforated with bullet holes or the dead bird left inside a locked car.

When this book was begun, the Mafia octopus had its tentacles entwined about southern Italy's throat. Now Cosa Nostra is facing a crisis, possibly the worst in its history. More than 400 mafiosi have turned state's witness, many bosses have been jailed for life and the Mafia's political protectors have been swept aside in corruption trials. The future is uncertain, but it appears the economic and moral stranglehold described in this book may already be loosening.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Exhibition Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An expanding B2B exhibition and...

Recruitment Genius: QA Technician

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading manufacturer of re...

Recruitment Genius: Office Administrator

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion, an experienced and hig...

SThree: Graduate Recruitment Resourcer

£20000 per annum + commission: SThree: Sthree have an exciting opportunity for...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Children shouldn’t even know the word 'diet' — obesity and lack of body confidence are symptoms of the same cause

Natasha Devon
Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Madonna, Deadmau5, Kanye West and Jay-Z at the Tidal launch event in New York  

Tidal: An overpriced music streaming service that only benefits the super-rich members of a messianic-like cult? Where do I sign up??

Michael Segalov
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat