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

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.