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John Dickie talks about his book Cosa Nostra.

John Dickie talks about some classic mafia books...

READERSVOICE.COM: You said that The Godfather had some slight inaccuracies in its portrait of the mafia in Sicily. Did you enjoy that book nonetheless?
JOHN DICKIE: Puzo was writing – in 1969 I think – at a time when we didn’t know what we know now about how Cosa Nostra is organized. The main thing he gets wrong is that he doesn’t grasp the difference between a blood family and a mafia Family. The first is a network of relatives, and the second is a cell of the organization known as Cosa Nostra.
The Godfather is a great fun story, but it isn’t really about organized crime. It’s a story about work, family, and responsibility that is very cleverly pitched to make white collar middle American fathers feel clever and dangerous.
It’s also a Three Bears-type story about how to be a good son. You have Fredo, who is too wimpy and dissipated. You have Sonny, who is too macho and violent. And in the middle you have Michael, who is just right: judicious, lethal, and a good father. In fact Sonny – the character played by James Caan in the movie – is inadvertently hilarious. It isn’t just that Puzo portrays him as macho: in fact, if you read the text, he is virtually a walking penis.
RV: Could you talk a bit about the novel The Day of the Owl you liked, concerning the mafia? Is it available in English? What other novels on the mafia have you liked and why?
JD: The Day of the Owl is not just a great read, it’s also historically important because at the time when it was published, 1961, hardly anyone was talking about the mafia. The clever thing that Sciascia does is show how the normal rules of the detective novel don’t apply in the realm of the mafia.

The formulaic gumshoe story ends when Poirot or somebody brings all the characters together in the drawing room and reveals the truth about whodunnit. In Sciascia, everybody either already knows the truth, or is too afraid to find out what it is. It’s the detective, and not the murderer, who is isolated.
But there are also very serious limits to Sciascia’s understanding of the mafia which only became apparent much later, during the epic struggle that Falcone and Borsellino mounted against Cosa Nostra in the 1980s. Essentially Sciascia thought of the mafia as a state of mind, something that all Sicilians shared in some way or other. He would often say that “il mafioso non sa di essere un mafioso”: “the mafioso doesn’t know he is a mafioso”. We now know, of course, that men of honour know very well what they are, and have done since the beginnings of the organization a century and a half ago.
More recent fiction. Well, there’s a novel written in the first person called Malacarne by Giosuè Calaciura that is a really chilling account of the dehumanization of people within the mafia system.
RV: You mentioned the Cola Gentile memoir that hadn’t been translated into English, and how it was a good read, even if it wasn’t completely frank. I was wondering what other memoirs you especially liked by mafia figures, and which ones you would like to see made available.
JD: I think I’m right in saying that Tommaso Buscetta’s book, written in collaboration with the great mafia expert Pino Arlacchi, has not even been translated. So we have to start with that one. Then, for a disturbing and informative inside account of the dramas of the 1980s and 1990s, the books by Giovanni Brusca (who pressed the detonator on the Capaci bomb that killed judge Falcone) and Salvatore Cancemi (a member of the Commission).

RV: You’ve got an extensive bibliography in Cosa Nostra. What were some of your favorite books on the mafia?
JD: Almost all the best things are in Italian, obviously. Falcone’s interviews with a French journalist, published under the title of Cose di Cosa Nostra, repay reading and re-reading (they have been translated).
And among the academic books that followed in Falcone’s wake, I’d recommend Salvatore Lupo’s history – which I mentioned above; Diego Gambetta’s The Sicilian Mafia (also translated), which is a superb account of the business logic of mafia operations; and Alessandra Dino’s Mutazioni, which is a very recent portrait of the internal culture of the organization.
For a gripping journalistic reconstruction of Falcone’s work, Alexander Stille’s Excellent Cadavers is the place to go. And we shouldn’t forget, as I make clear in my book, that the history of the mafia is also the history of opposition to the mafia: Umberto Santino’s recent Storia dell’antimafia is fundamental.
RV: Could you list your five favorite books of all time, whether fiction or non-fiction, mafia-related or not, and maybe say a bit about what you liked about them?
JD: I’m a big fan of the great nineteenth- and early twentieth-century novels: Dickens, Flaubert, Balzac, etc. obviously, but also Italians like Manzoni, De Roberto, Svevo and Pirandello (I vecchi e i giovani). My choice for a desert island book might by Petrarch’s collection of lyric poems in Italian, the Canzoniere. But then I’m an academic, so the best book is always the next one…
Cosa Nostra, a History of the Sicilian Mafia, by John Dickie. Hodder and Stoughton, 483pp.