On the flight to Sicily, I read in several British newspapers about a mini riot in Palermo. The story seemed to be that the inhabitants of the Papireto district had taken to the streets to protest over a plague of fat mice. The creatures had been tumbling onto their heads from the tops of buildings. This sounded like a Biblical affliction, probably more distressing than anything suffered by the ancient Egyptians.

Mice in Palermo had traditionally displayed an uncanny nimbleness in leaping from one rooftop to another but, for reasons the journalists did not explain, the new generation was obese, and so incapable of the old-style leap. Missing their target, as often as not they landed instead on the heads of passers-by. The inertia of the city council in the face of this nuisance was irksome, so the enraged populace put up barricades. The Post-Modern revolution – ‘why doesn’t somebody do something?’ – seemed to be underway in Sicily.

The Italian papers gave a different version. According to them, an elderly lady had a passion for mice, which she kept as pets. Having reached the age of 83 and being sans everything, she was no longer able to tend or feed them. The mice spilled out onto the roof and plummeted down from it. La Repubblica carried a cartoon showing Palermitans using umbrellas to protect themselves from the plunging mice, which looked more like Disney creations than rodents.

The Giornale di Sicilia carried a third version, signed by a conscientious sleuth who had traced the unfortunate lady, Benedetta di Salvo, to a mental hospital. She was sufficiently lucid to deny that she was any kind of pied piper, or ‘mouse queen’. In fact she loathed mice and had been kept prisoner in her own home by packs of the creatures scurrying around. Sleep was out of the question: as soon as she shut her eyes, the mice would crawl over her. Far from feeding them, she spent her time chasing as many as she could out of her house onto the roof . . . And so on.

There was something satisfyingly Pirandellian about these conflicting versions. The tale reminded me of the structure of his play Right You Are! (If You Think So), in which signora Frola and her son-in-law, signor Ponza, trail onstage in succession to refute the explanations the other has provided regarding the puzzling behaviour of Ponza towards his wife. Each politely claims that although the other is mad and his/her testimony to be disregarded, he/ she is to be treated with the maximum of compassion and respect. What, asks Pirandello, is all this nonsense about Truth? Put up with appearances, he says, even if they are contradictory, because there is no alternative. The opposite of one truth is not a lie but another person’s truth. In any case, what can you really know about other people?

At the end of his Travels in Italy, Goethe wrote enigmatically that ‘Sicily is the key to everything in Italy.’ It could equally be said that Pirandello – more than Giovanni Verga, the verista novelist admired and translated by D.H. Lawrence (and discussed here by James Wood on 10 August) – is the key to Sicily, where people like to explain, over the most concentrated espresso drunk anywhere in Europe, exactly why everyone else’s version of an incident or situation is flawed, self-interested, corrupt or downright insane. If there is any consensus, it is that Sicily is changing. The island has begun to resume the status it once enjoyed as a centre of Mediterranean civilisation. Immigrants, illegal or otherwise, flood onto the mainland from North Africa via Sicily, and it is possible that Sicily will become a meeting point again, a place where Christian and Muslim cultures cross. But first, it needs to sort itself out, and the problems begin here.

The Mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, takes the optimistic view. Cynicism is de rigueur in contemporary politics, not just in Italy. No pundit will rise to prominence on any profession of respect or idealism, so let me invite the blackball from the pundits’ club by expressing whole-hearted admiration for this man. He has faced down two gangs of blackguards: the country’s discredited political old guard, including Bettino Craxi and Giulio Andreotti, and the Mafia. His second term in office is about to expire, and Italian law does not allow him to seek a third, but his dream, he told me, is to stand next June as President of the devolved Sicilian Regional Assembly. Conveniently, reforms to the Constitution have made this position directly elected, which will help him, since his own popularity has survived the decline of La Rete (‘The Network’), the political party he founded.

Orlando lives in a style which no lord provost or mayor of any British city could match, but then none of them has to live surrounded by armed guards day and night. The Villa Niscemi, the Mayor’s official residence, lies on the outskirts of the sprawling city of Palermo. Once the residence of one of the many Spanish grandees who made their home on the island in the days of Bourbon rule, it retains its baroque splendour. A hitch in plans to privatise the municipal transport system led to an unscheduled council meeting when I was due to meet Orlando, so I was left, with his whole-hearted apologies, to kick my heels for a couple of hours in the villa’s florid chambers, watched over by Greek deities, Roman warriors and the plump, sensual cherubs who accompanied the Virgin Mary on her Assumption into heaven. Previous owners, in stately poses, bedecked in the ribbons and medals of forgotten orders of chivalry, peered down from the walls. They would have recognised the inlaid tables with miniature sculptures on them of the rape of the unusually voluptuous Sabine women, and would not have been surprised by the army of deferential, liveried flunkeys moving silently from room to room, bearing chilled water and endless supplies of espresso. They might have been less familiar with the groups of casually attired young men and women, who occasionally pulled off their jackets to reveal guns resting in their holsters.

‘The Mafia as we have known it for one hundred and fifty years is dead,’ Orlando announced, restlessly drawing diagrams on the blotting paper in front of him to illustrate separate phases in history. ‘I do not say the Mafia itself is dead. The old Mafia needed territorial control of a particular area, like Corleone, and once they had imposed themselves there, they could then extend their rule. That was the case with the last of the Mafia chieftains, Toto Riina, who was finally captured in 1993, after being on the run for 23 years. The new Mafia is a Mafia of the euro and the Internet. They can issue orders from Palermo which take effect in Brazil or the Seychelles.’

I asked about Bernardo Provenzano, who comes from Corleone, and is universally regarded as the supreme Mafia boss. In spite of having been on the most-wanted list for 37 years, he is still at large. ‘I believe that even now Provenzano is preparing his successor. No, I don’t think he has the knowledge of the new technology to lead tomorrow’s Mafia, but he has the intelligence to recognise his own deficiencies and appoint someone better educated. This new Mafia is the challenge that the international community will have to face.’

The challenge is to be accepted – or at any rate discussed – at a high-profile conference on organised crime which, to Orlando’s delight, the UN has chosen to host in Palermo this month. The heads of state of nearly two hundred countries, including President Clinton, Prime Ministers Blair and Jospin, and Chancellor Schroeder, have promised to attend. So has the Russian President, Vladimir Putin. Whether they show up themselves, or delegate lesser mortals, a Convention against Transnational Organised Crime will be opened for signature. States which sign up will have to ensure, among other things, that it is an offence under their domestic law to participate in organised criminal activity and money-laundering. The smuggling of migrants and the trade in women and children for the sex industry are the subjects of separate protocols. It is an ambitious project and, assuming it is signed and ratified by at least forty states, the Convention will be the first legally binding UN instrument in the field of crime.

For Orlando, the choice of venue is proof that Palermo is now regarded as ‘the city of legality’, but it’s more likely that apparatchiks in New York simply felt that Sicily had more experience of organised crime than anywhere else. The main venue is the grandiose Teatro Massimo, the biggest theatre in Europe outside Paris, which is entered by climbing the kind of staircase which should lead to a tsar’s palace. Orlando thinks that the choice of a playhouse as a venue rather than a court of law suggests the growing role of culture in the struggle against the Mafia but, ironically, the façade of the Teatro Massimo will be recognised by most people as the location of the final shoot-out in Coppola’s The Godfather Part Three.

Culture against the Mafia. Orlando talks of the ‘two wheels’ of the anti-Mafia movement: repression and culture. Film directors are now signed up to the cause. The winner of the ‘Best Screenplay’ award at the Venice Film Festival was I cento passi (‘The Hundred Paces’), directed by Marco Tullio Giordana. The need for repression – or the instruments of repression – to accompany culture was well illustrated on the night I saw the film, in a cinema on the outskirts of Palermo, not far from where the events outlined in the plot occurred. The audience contained several men carrying firearms: a magistrate from the prosecutor’s office had come to see the film and his armed escort had joined him. There is no relaxation for these magistrates, who are heroes in the proper sense of the term, but their presence induces a certain queasiness in more cowardly individuals, a category to which I belong.

The ‘hundred paces’ of the title refer to the distance separating the house of Giuseppe Impastato from the residence of the local Mafia boss, Gaetano Badalamenti. Impastato was the son of a Mafia family, but also a child of the 1960s and became a thorn in the flesh of the Mafia after he set up a radio station. Across the airwaves, he jeered at the connivance between local politicians and Mafiosi. He was killed – in 1978 – on the same day as Aldo Moro, which meant that his death went unnoticed, although this might have been the case anyway. The mother of Impastato assisted in making the film. It seems probable that her husband, too, was killed by the Mafia. This film is an excellent example of a new rejection by film-makers of the ambiguous stance of films such as The Godfather towards the Mafioso as hero.

For an example of the impact of the Mafia on everyday life, I was taken by Vincenzo Consolo, Italy’s best contemporary novelist, to La Tartaruga, a restaurant near Capo d’Orlando, to the east of Palermo. Sicilian wines have improved beyond recognition in recent years, and even those who scoff at Italian sparkling wine would be delighted by the crisp spumante which carries the label Duca di Salaparuta (the vineyards are actually owned by the Sicilian Regional Assembly). It is impossible to imagine more idyllic surroundings in which to drink it. The restaurant overlooks a sea so clear as to encourage the belief that pollution is a temporary error which nature, left to itself, will correct. On the one side of the gulf stands the glorious city of Cefalú, with its great Norman cathedral built in the 12th century by King Roger II, on the other the beetling cliffs and promontories of the cape. The Aeolian islands, once inhabited by the king of the winds who made the travels of Odysseus so troublesome, are imposing, beguiling forms on the near horizon.

The town has always been an island of radicals in a sea of quiet-living folk who have little wish to disturb the peace, even if it is a pax mafiosa. Eight years ago, the owner of La Tartaruga denounced a gang who were pestering him for protection money. Up and down the coast, businessmen pay up sullenly, out of fear, and who can blame them? This man refused, and went so far as to appear in open court to identify the criminals. It was an act of awesome bravery, and even now there are always armed policemen in his restaurant. Nothing untoward has happened, and the two policemen assigned to the job have grown to be among the fattest in Italy: they spend their time in the kitchen, dining well, drinking deeply and occasionally taking a brief tour around the dining-room, holding a semi-automatic under one arm. Past performance, however, is no guide to future security. The honoured society does not forget.

Vincenzo Consolo goads the conscience of his readers in his own idiosyncratic novels, which combine stylistic aestheticism and political militancy. He writes in the highly wrought poetic style of The Picture of Dorian Gray, but is as unyielding as Sartre in his demand that his heroes – and his readers – make choices in the face of political and moral dilemmas. His contempt for commercial fiction, and slick writing in general, is deep. Only one of his novels is available in English. The Smile of the Unknown Mariner, which I translated in 1994, is an antidote to Lampedusa’s The Leopard, presenting the landing of Garibaldi and the coming to power of a new class from the point of view not of the aristocracy but of the peasantry. His most recent novel is Lo Spasimo di Palermo, a title which will cause some future translator nightmares, since it refers both to a painting by Raphael, once in Palermo but now in the Prado, and to a derelict church whose recent conversion into a bustling concert hall is taken by many as a symbol of the regeneration of the city. The protagonist returns to Sicily after years of absence, in an attempt to reconcile himself to his son’s involvement with terrorism, but finds himself an unwilling witness to the 1992 assassination by the Mafia of the magistrate Paolo Borsellino.

Consolo acknowledges a debt to two contrasting figures, the novelist Leonardo Sciascia (1921-89), and the poet Lucio Piccolo (1901-68). Both have foundations named after them, and since their deaths both have undergone a Pirandellian makeover of their reputations. These foundations are a curious feature of Sicilian, and Italian, life. They are intended as forums for conferences and debates, or as places in which the memory and work of some illustrious figure can be kept alive, but often they degenerate into arenas of conflict. No one knows how many of them there are, but they receive funds from the four tiers of administration in Sicily – the national government, the devolved regional assembly, the provincial authority and the city or town council. There are no agreed rules for the disbursement or expenditure of these funds.

The Sciascia Foundation is in the town of Racalmuto, where he was born. Sciascia’s novels, from The Day of the Owl (1961) to The Knight and Death, which I translated in 1988, use the detective story format to lay bare the corrupting effect of Mafia penetration on the institutions of the state. He made only one boast, that with The Day of the Owl he had written the first anti-Mafia novel in Sicilian history. All his fiction is set in Sicily, but this Sicily stands for any place where democratic politics and globalised business overlap, or where private interests masquerade as public policy.

Since his death, all manner of people who would not have dared utter a word against him while he was alive have attacked his work and even suggest that he was unwittingly bewitched by the Mafia. (Among them is Pino Arlacchi, once Vice-President of Italy’s Parliamentary Commission on the Mafia and now Executive Director of the UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention.) Meanwhile, the Foundation which Sciascia wished to be set up ‘on the French model’ to provide an archive of his work and a forum for continued discussion of the causes he had championed has turned into a battlefield. It has received massive sums from the Sicilian regional and central government, some of which have been spent for no identifiable purpose, while others have been invested against the day when the Foundation eventually springs into action. According to one critic I spoke to, there have been six inaugural events so far. After each set of opening celebrations, the Foundation closes again. It has no material. The Sciascia family has decided against handing over any of the books, prints or manuscripts in their possession. The Foundation has a commissionaire, a well-stocked bank account into which they pay the funds they receive from government, but no library. The trustees, I was told, are a disgrace. A committee member retorted that it takes time to get things together. Pirandello would have believed both of them. I believe the critics.

I hope that the delegates to the Conference on Transnational Organised Crime will favour Sciascia’s approach and not Pirandello’s, although I know perfectly well that a conference of hard-bitten international police officers and bluff politicians is unlikely to consider either. Much as he loved Pirandello – whom he referred to in one of his last essays as ‘my father’ – Sciascia had no time for the multiplicity of truths. A notion of this sort is useless in the face of the drug-pushers, arms-dealers, gun-wielders and prostitute-traffickers who make up the organised crime syndicates in Colombia, China, Azerbaijan, Russia and elsewhere. In a perverse homage to Sicily, these people are invariably referred to in their local newspapers as ‘Mafia’. Sciascia saw the Mafia, together with the Inquisition and Fascism, as part of the satanic trinity which had afflicted Sicily and Italy for centuries. ‘Against Mafia, Inquisition and Fascism’: as a slogan to be displayed outside the Teatro Massimo during the Conference, it is better than the likely alternative, also heard recently in Palermo – ‘Why doesn’t somebody do something?’

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