There is a certain and deliberate irony in the title of this Norman Lewis work on the Sicilan Mafia as the distinguished travel writer clearly regards the Sicilan mafia as dishonourable. His observation of them runs from 1943 to 1962. In 1943 the Allies invaded Sicily. The Canadian and British forces had to take the east of the island, the American Seventh Army the more difficult west. Here the Cammararata mountains were key. The Italians dug in and a Monte Cassino redoubt and resistance were entirely possible. The Americans got in contact with the mafia capo Don Calo Vizzini. Two-thirds of the Italian troops then deserted and their commander arrested by a trick in Mussomeli and confined to the town hall. All this was achieved by Don Calo but he exacted a heavy price for so doing. The Mafia were allowed to elect their own mayor and effectively continued to control the Island. Whoever in the next twenty years wanted to achieve or maintain power, the church, Christian Democrat party, the judiciary, the police they were beholden to the mafia so to do. It was more a case of institutionalised crime than organised
Lewis’s victims in all of this are the downtrodden Sicilan peasantry. Legislation passed but never enforced allowed the peasantry 50% ownership of the land they cultivated. In 1962 their annual income of £120 was amongst the lowest in Europe. If the mafia could not control the local banditry they eliminated them. They held their own courts and enforced their own justice.
Perhaps the one institution that might and could have done something was the Catholic Church. Amongst the most surprising accounts in this book are of the Franciscan monks of Mazzarino who terrorised the town under Padre Carmelo for two years. They were fully armed, bought and sold property, dealt in pigs, had regular visits from prostitutes and even set up a pornographic network of letter writing. Little better was the prison of Uccerdone. One “inmate” Salvatore Malta continued to practice his activities in his local town whilst notionally a prisoner. For others it was little more than a pleasant holiday home.
Lewis’s research is intensive and his prose style pleasing. There is a useful publishers’ update after the mafia car bombs in 1972, which killed Judge Falcone and Palermo’s chief prosecutor Borsellino. I found it an informative read and another Lewis book worthy of reexamination.