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John Dickie talks about his book COSA NOSTRA

Readersvoice.com aims to give people a few good reading tips. You might want to check out previous issues, too, for more suggestions and interviews.This issue of readersvoice.com I contacted voiceover expert Bob Bergen, who is a bit of a showbiz allrounder but is probably best known as the voice of Porky Pig for Warner Brothers.First up, though, I interviewed John Dickie about his excellent book Cosa Nostra, a History of the Sicilian Mafia (Hodder and Stoughton), and I asked him about some other classic books on the mafia.So read on...

There are a lot of interesting stories in Cosa Nostra, a History of the Sicilian Mafia. For example, one Sicilian in the mafia went to a party in New York. Everyone introduced each other as mafia members and said where they were from. The Sicilian left because it wasn’t the way they did things in Sicily: with total secrecy.
Other stories tell of heart-breaking failures of justice through Sicilian history, with witnesses against the mafia scared off and judges bought, but also of successes in the battle against the mafia. The book ties in a lot of the general history of Italy and Sicily, too. Cosa Nostra, a History of the Sicilian Mafia (Hodder and Stoughton) is a well-researched story of the mafia from its early days standing over lemon grove owners in Sicily, through the mafia diaspora to the U.S., the murder of Judge Falcone in Sicily, and on to the present day. I asked John Dickie about Cosa Nostra, and other books on the mafia.
READERSVOICE.COM: What made you focus on the Sicilian mafia?
JOHN DICKIE: Two things in particular. First, I had a sense that the great historical work on Cosa Nostra that was opened up by the magistrates Falcone and Borsellino had not been heard abroad. Outside Italy people still continue to think about the mafia, and particularly about its history, in hopelessly outdated “Hollywood” terms.
Second, there are some extraordinarily powerful and very real stories about the mafia in Sicily that are much more compelling than the American version and yet which are unknown outside Italy — and even outside a small group of specialists.

RV: Your book Cosa Nostra mentions how the Italian courts have often been ineffective in putting a stop to the Sicilian mafia, eg the 1901 trial based on the Sangiorgi report, the Notarbartolo murder, and the Catanzaro trial in 1968. Is the legal system basically flawed, and what would you say needed to be done to the legal system to ensure it could deal with the mafia given their ability to intimidate witnesses and influence judges?
JD: Right now, the Italian judicial system is doing a pretty good job of prosecuting mafiosi – the lessons of the 1980s have been learned. Historically, of course, it was a different matter: there were many episodes of corruption and passive collusion and a general failure to take the issue seriously. But one shouldn’t forget that the mafia’s efforts to evade prosecution begin well before any case ever reaches court, through the intimidation of witnesses, for example. So it wasn’t and isn’t just the legal system’s fault.
There seem to me to be two outstanding problems the Italian legal system has to face today. First, it still finds it very difficult successfully to prosecute politicians for so-called “concorso esterno in associazione mafiosa” — for being at the mafia’s service without being directly involved in it. Part of the reason for this is simply that it is very difficult to prove this kind of secretive liaison.
The second problem is a more general one: the sheer length of time it takes for the courts to reach a definitive verdict. It is difficult for voters to make politicians pay the electoral price for involvement with the mafia when trials take a decade, and each stage of the judicial process seems to produce a different result – guilty or not guilty.

RV: When you were doing archive research what approach did you use?
JD: Most of the key archival material I consulted was first discovered during the late 1980s and 1990s by Italian historians. As I make clear in the book, what I am trying to do is tell the history of the mafia as the Italian experts now tell it. This was research that I thought was profoundly important, and yet which had remained almost completely unknown outside Italy.
The key figure is Salvatore Lupo, a friend of mine who wrote the first credible history of the Sicilian mafia in Italian back in 1993. It’s an absolutely brilliant, pioneering book, but very much for the expert: he takes an awful lot for granted in terms of what the reader understands about the history of Sicily and the literature on organized crime.
Italy now has a very good understanding of the mafia phenomenon. So it would take absurd arrogance to swan in from the outside and presume to tell them what the mafia is.
One of the mistakes that some foreign journalists make is that they assume no one in Sicily can be trusted, and that they have to dig away on their own to make scoops. The result is all too often just confusion. So luckily I didn’t have to blaze a solitary trail with my research – it would have taken much longer than two years to write if I had! Having said that, it was the hardest two years of work of my whole life – literally 7 days a week. Almost as much as the research, the challenge was to bring the stories to life.