The Honoured Society

Edward Luttwak

  • BuyMafia Republic: Italy’s Criminal Curse: Cosa Nostra, Camorra and ’Ndrangheta from 1946 to the Present by John Dickie
    Sceptre, 524 pp, £25.00, May 2013, ISBN 978 1 4447 2640 4

I was infuriated by the title before I started the book. The problem is not with ‘republic’, though ‘oligarchies’ would be more accurate, but with ‘mafia’: an ugly word used only by ignorant continentali. As a child in Palermo, living in the via Villareale, a few steps from the stylish Piazza Politeama, twenty minutes by car from the splendid beach of Mondello (my father had a car, few did), I knew exactly who the continentali were: the non-Sicilians of the mainland whose inability to understand our ways was incurable, as exemplified by their belief that the members of the honoured society, l’onorata società, were mere gangsters and protection racketeers, as if the lawyer N. who lived across the street, the notary C., his cousin, and our own doctor S. would ever dream of extorting a few lire from tavern-keepers. The lawyer, the notary and the doctor were all members of the honoured society, each with his own mandamento – the command of a given quarter of Palermo. They did have strong-arm underlings to keep everyone in line, but that mostly meant clamping down on petty crime by common thieves or street-corner toughs. They were colleagues of the police on that front, parting ways only when particular outrages – the violent rape of a woman, the robbery of a protected business, or worse, acts of overt defiance towards or disrespect for the honoured society – called for much more drastic punishment than the law would have prescribed. And of course no statute outlawed the mancanza di rispetto, the lack of respect that only swift and harsh punishment could expunge. Even in these cases, however, no firearms were used and there was no outright killing: for that there was the corpo armato, which received its orders not from lawyer N., notary C. or doctor S. but from the top leaders in conclave, the cupola. I don’t remember hearing that word at the time – it could be a journalistic fabrication like so much else – but I knew there were people senior to the people I knew.

Those who are still taken in by the ‘maxi-trials’ that preceded and followed the murders in 1992 of the prosecutors (near enough for procuratori) Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, and which identified two near illiterates, Salvatore ‘Totò’ Riina (convicted with another villager, Giovanni Brusca) and Bernardo Provenzano, as successive ‘chiefs of the mafia’, are left to puzzle over the peculiar inversion that has lawyers, notaries and doctors obediently taking orders from wretched peasants hiding out in the countryside. Naturally, that is just another continental fantasy, as are many beliefs about Sicily and its peculiar criminality: none is more revealing than the clichéd depiction of the mafioso as a rustic who kills with his lupara. The continentali believe this is some special Sicilian gun for hunting non-existent wolves (lupi), but the correct term is colpi di lupara, which merely denotes shotgun slugs as opposed to birdshot.

Unsurprisingly, the social status of the top leaders has never been lower than that of lawyer N., notary C. and doctor S. In my Palermo childhood there was very occasional talk of a particular prince and a prominent politician being top leaders, but no one was eager to find out more. I don’t doubt that Riina and Provenzano, who are now elderly prisoners, were guilty of many crimes. In Riina’s case that included the murders (with Brusca) of the endlessly commemorated prosecutors Falcone and Borsellino (tourists now fly into Palermo’s Falcone-Borsellino Airport). But I am equally certain that they were never more than corporals in the honoured society, and errant corporals at that. It is telling that each was arrested after a denunciation, Riina 23 years after he was first declared a fugitive from the law, Provenzano after a fantastical 43 years of nominal outlawry. It was very nominal: each lived perfectly normally with their families – Riina in Palermo, Provenzano not far from Corleone – until their superiors shopped them.

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