‘So you think it comes from the Arabic?’ says the first character.
‘Very probably, my dear fellow, very probably,’ replies the second, ‘but on the subject of words, our science is anything but secure ... Here for example is Petrocchi who spells the word with two f’s: “a union of persons of every grade and type who help each other in their mutual interest without respect for the law or morality”. He puts it in relation, rather uncertainly, with the old French mafler from which we get maflé and maflu, to eat or stuff oneself.’
‘I don’t like it,’ says the first.
That is the beginning of ‘Filologia’, a tiny short story by the Sicilian writer, Leonardo Sciascia. The two disembodied voices, who are never identified, continue their linguistic enquiry into the origin of Mafia. Gradually the reader realises that one voice is that of a Capomafia in prison, the other that of his lawyer preparing the boss’s testimony before a judicial investigation. Needless to say, they agree that la mafia non c’e piu – it does not exist any more.
The view that there is no such thing as the Mafia forms the central argument of Christopher Duggan’s lively and provocative study. At its core stands the body of research which he assembled for his PhD, an investigation of the attempt by the Fascist regime in the Twenties to put an end once and for all to what they believed to be a dangerous secret organisation. Mussolini sent Cesare Mori, the ‘Iron Prefect’, a man of undoubted rigour and fortitude, to Palermo, armed with all the powers that a dictatorial regime could provide, and let him loose on thousands of rural cattle rustlers, peasant troublemakers and others, innocent and guilty alike. Hundreds were arrested and held without trial. Others went before courts in mass trials reminiscent of those carried out recently in Palermo by Prosecutor Giovani Falcone. Mori was dismissed under circumstances which suggested that influence in high places had been exercised against him. Unlike his latterday successor, General Alberto Dalla Chiesa, Mori died in his bed.
The problem remains: does the Mafia exist? Well, people called mafiosi certainly exist. I myself have seen the Piromalli family, one of the two great families of the Ndrangheta, the Calabrian equivalent, standing and chatting on a Sunday morning in Gioia Tauro outside a large garage which the family owns. Certainly the heads of the Mafia families in New York exist, men with names like Antonio ‘Tony Ducks’ Corallo of the Lucchese, or Anthony ‘Fat Tony’ Salerno of the Genovese. The hundreds of corpses left on mean streets in Palermo, Naples or Brooklyn exist too.
But is there a Mafia with rules and regulations, based on secret initiation rites, linked by ceremonies and blood oaths? Dr Duggan denies it, and here he joins a venerable company of students of the Italian South. Pasquale Villari asserted in his famous Lettere Meridionali, published more than a century ago: ‘The Mafia has no written statutes, it is not a secret society, hardly an association. It is formed by spontaneous generation.’ Pino Arlacchi, Italy’s foremost expert on the sociology of Mafia today, has no doubt that Villari and Duggan are right about the traditional Mafia. In his classic study of the sociology of the rural Italian South Mafia, Peasants and Great Estates (Cambridge, 1983) he wrote that Mafia was not an organisation but a form of behaviour. There was a characteristic comportamento mafioso which made an ordinary petty criminal into a ‘man of honour’, a mediator and judge, a social type who occupied the middle position between the wealthy landlords and the impoverished peasantry. In Western Sicily, the local Mafia boss was traditionally the butcher, and his main source of income cattle rustling, abigeato, or holding the wealthy to ransom.
Duggan explains how the alien Italian kingdom which imposed itself on Sicily in the 1860s after the unification of Italy turned to myth-making to cover its failure to establish a flourishing free society. As Lucy Riall has shown in a recent doctoral thesis, the Northern Italian liberals, ‘an extremely narrow class’, ‘sharing with the old nobility a deep social conservatism and a strong hostility to mass politics’, attempted to force their new Southern subjects to be free. They were determined to ‘impose liberalism’. If the Sicilians failed to behave like sturdy Englishmen or at least like upright Piedmontese, it was because they suffered from hereditary criminal tendencies. There were Mafia conspiracies everywhere. It is typical that the first occasion when the word ‘Mafia’ appears in an official document was the report of Prefect Count Filippo Gualterio in 1865. Gualterio, a Tuscanaristocrat, feared and hated the unwashed, illiterate Sicilians among whom he had been compelled to live: ‘Africans’ one of Garibaldi’s generals called them. Duggan, who learned how to debunk myth from Denis Mack Smith, did not waste his time with the maestro. He has a similar eye for the absurd and the same finely honed prose style. Yet behind the fun he has a serious purpose. The myth-making allowed the new rulers of Sicily to pretend that the deep injustices of rural life could be concealed behind melodramatic talk of criminal conspiracies and secret rites. He shows, too, how Mussolini’s campaign in the Twenties against the Mafia ended by erecting another station along the via crucis of the Italian peasantry.
At other points in his argument Duggan seems to be oddly uncertain about how to handle certain evidence. In 1984 the ‘Boss of Two Worlds’, Tommaso Buscetta, the Italo-Brazilian mafioso, broke the traditional code of silence, omerta, and testified in a series of stupendous trials against his former associates. Buscetta described a structure for Cosa Nostra which was hardly Villari’s ‘spontaneous generation’. It included, Buscetta claimed, not only rigorously hierarchical families and chiefs, but a commission to coordinate the families in each province. Duggan duly reports the testimony, but hesitates about venturing into what he justly calls ‘the minefield of fact and fantasy’. He says, uneasily, that ‘myths have a power and momentum of their own,’ which presumably means that life has begun to imitate art. He never says explicitly whether he believes Buscetta or not. Similarly he writes gingerly that Genco Russo, a notorious mafioso, was ‘often spoken of as a leading Mafia figure’, and that Don Calogero Vizzini, the infamous ‘Don Calo’, enjoyed ‘a lasting ... if undeserved fascination’. Such evasions cloud the issue. His hypothesis does not require him to deny the existence of individual mafiosi: of course they exist. Nor can he deny that behaviour known as comportamento mafioso exists. All observers concede that. His argument has to do with the existence of grand, secret organsations, the so-called ‘associations to commit crimes’, and there the evidence was (and is) much less clear.
Oddly for an historian, he never stops to consider that Mafia may have changed. Pino Arlacchi told me recently that he used to take the line that Duggan does in the book – that Mafia as an organisation does not exist – but does so no longer. He accepts that Duggan is right for the period up to the 1950s, but after that the Mafia had to change. Now in the 1980s Arlacchi believes that the demands of the billion-dollar trade in drugs which swamped the traditional, rural Mafia in the early 1970s has forced it to organise, to become a kind of criminal multinational. He also argues that to say that Mafia never existed as a great conspiracy is not the same thing as saying it was merely a quaint form of peasant behaviour. Mafiosi used force to control particular, well-defined territories. They had real power and knew how to use it.
Duggan, on the other hand, sees what Italian students too often miss. He notes shrewdly how the very value system itself leads Sicilians to look for conspiracy, whether there or not. He quotes Charlotte Gower Chapman, an American sociologist, who remarked in 1929 that every Sicilian liked to think of himself as scaltru – sly, nimble, quick-witted. Sixty years later those values are still widespread in the Italian South. To be naive is ultimately to be fesso – silly or cracked. I remember the famous Italian economist Paolo Sylos Labini throwing his arms wide in a theatrical gesture and declaring to me: ‘I am an incredible fesso – I pay my taxes.’ The opposite of fesso is furbo or scaltro – the sly knowingness which is able to fox authority, to get things done, to bend rules.
Such a mentality slides easily into fantasies about criminal conspiracies. It expects the worst of every public act and statement. It looks for complicated explanations when simple and obvious ones will do. In a sense both John Cornwell’s A Thief in the Night and Christopher Duggan’s Fascism and the Mafia are attempts by Italian-speaking Englishmen to debunk such ideas, to pour clear water into turbid, murky cisterns, to find out what really happened. Both have chosen impenetrable subjects. Historians do not normally meet members of Cosa Nostra so that they can check their sources, nor could an ex-seminarian turned novelist/detective story writer like John Cornwell have expected the secretive bureaucracy of the Vatican to open its closed doors. Yet in 1987 he received what amounted to an official summons to investigate the strange story of the 33-day Pontificate of Pope John Paul I, who died on the night of 28-29 September 1978. To his and the reader’s surprise, Cornwell found doors and mouths open which he expected to be shut. At one point he found himself literally looking at the ear of his Holiness Pope John Paul II, who had bent his head to hear what he had to say.
The book is a kind of detective story. Cornwell moves step by step to track down the evidence which led people to believe, journalists to report and authors to write that John Paul I had been murdered. There are, as in all crime stories, the clues, the false leads, the discrepancies, the conflicts of testimony, the suspicious behaviour, but in this case the characters are real. Much the most memorable portrait is that of Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, the huge, athletic American from Al Capone’s town of Cicero, Illinois. Marcinkus, notorious as the Pope’s ‘gorilla’ because he supervised security and twice saved the life of Paul VI, was even more suspect as the Pope’s banker. Until July of this year, Marcinkus ran the Institute of Religious Works, the Papal bank, which suddenly became frontpage news when the Milanese Banco Ambrosiano collapsed. It turned out that Marcinkus had issued ‘letters of comfort’ to Banco Ambrosiano shell companies all over the world which allowed them to borrow very large sums because they had the guaranty of the Pope’s own bank. In the final settlement the Vatican authorised a payment of 250 million dollars to the creditors, an indirect acknowledgment of fault. The story took a melodramatic turn when the Banco Ambrosiano’s ambitious director, Calvi, was found hanged under Blackfriars Bridge. Did the Archbishop have him murdered? Did the Mafia? Were the Freemasons involved? After all, Calvi had associations with the notorious Licio Gelli (Cornwell keeps calling him Liceo or ‘school’), head of the P2 Masonic Lodge. Was the Pope murdered by some or all of these?
Cornwell’s chase takes him to all sorts of places, from New Jersey to talk to a tough ex-FBI undercover agent, to Ireland to listen to a tearful bishop, once a chaplain to two Popes. He talks to the monsignori who flit up and down the corridors of the great Papal palace in the service of the last absolute monarchy in Europe. He interviews nuns and priests, archbishops and cardinals, journalists and undertakers, the whole rich cast of characters who walk on and off stage in the drama of the life and death of the saintly little Venetian ‘Papa Luciani’ as the Italians call him, John Paul I.
I won’t spoil your pleasure by revealing who dunnit. I found Cornwell’s conclusion as persuasive as those of the very best detective stories. Unlike the typical mystery, the real protagonist of A Thief in the Night is not a person but an organisation, the Holy See itself. Cornwell offers the best guide to the Vatican I have read. He explains how the world’s smallest state – its total surface amounts to 109 acres – actually operates. He shows us a government which, like all governments, is a place of secrets, intrigue and ambition: but the Vatican is also a holy place, a house of piety, selflessness and sacrifice. Cornwell’s portrait of the Holy See, its marble, its art, the baroque splendour of its rituals, is splendid and unforgettable. It passes the test of literary quality which Leslie Stephen established over a century ago: ‘it stamps itself instantly and indelibly on the mind.’
The Vatican and the Mafia, like Freemasons and Jews, invite conspiratorial ideas. For those with a paranoid cast of mind, they are ideal objects of hate and fear. I worked in an army mental hospital during my national service. The paranoid schizophrenics generally attributed their troubles to one or another of the above groups of people, sometimes in combination. A few saw the CIA behind everything, or the even more sinister Korean CIA, which was worse because it was Asian and hence inscrutable. The great service that Duggan and Cornwell perform is to remind us that ominous organisations are just groups of people, and that the truth about them tends to be less glamorous, if more complicated, than the sinister myths some of us prefer.