A Mob for All Seasons


Review of The Mafia: A Cultural History, by Roberto Maria Dainotto

London: Reaktion Books, 2015

It is common enough to try and explain away popular culture’s fascination with criminals and their misdeeds by saying that we tend to romanticize them, that they provide a way for us to experience some escapist pleasure, trapped as we are in our boring and ordinary lives. This can come in various forms. We lionize them, transforming them into noble, near-mythic figures, as with Coppola’s Corleones. In real-life cases that are harder to glamorize, we admire them for their outlaw status and transgressive behavior, as with James “Whitey” Bulger. Finally, there are cases that seem to appeal to nothing but our most prurient interests, as with last year’s case of the New York prison escapees, the lurid details of which kept many spellbound for weeks. A September 2015 post on the New Yorker blog by Maria Monnikova, entitled “Why Do We Admire Mobsters?” suggests that the mechanism of “psychological distance” allows us to feel positive feelings for otherwise deplorable individuals — as long as we are confident that our paths won’t cross, we allow ourselves to view them as ambitious, even principled beings.

In The Mafia: A Cultural History, published by Reaktion Books last year, Roberto Maria Dainotto, professor of Romance Studies at Duke, proposes an alternative to such truisms. With the same erudition and breadth of vision that he brought to earlier books such as Europe (in Theory) and Place in Literature: Regions, Cultures, Communities, Dainotto here argues that the representation of the Mafia in art and culture — one that rarely reflects its gruesome and utterly charmless reality — is no mere glamorization but, rather, a complicated working-out of society’s desires and fears. The book is partially motivated by the transformation of the disdain Dainotto — who is Sicilian — felt toward glorifying depictions of the Mafia to a genuine, if problematic appreciation of The Sopranos and other Mafia-inspired works, as he admits in the preface. That said, his book does not take the form of a memoir — “how I learned to stop worrying and love the Mafia” — but, rather, of a self-education to which we, the readers, are thankfully privy.

Dainotto begins his study with Giovanni Verga’s 1880 novella Cavalleria rusticana, which is likely best known to English-language audiences as the basis for the Mascagni opera from a decade later. Verga’s work has a simple enough plot — a soldier returns to Sicily after fulfilling his military responsibilities, only to find that his former lover has taken up with a rich man from a neighboring town. The soldier enters into an affair with his beloved. Once the affair becomes known to her wealthy husband, the two men engage in a duel, resulting in the soldier’s death.

Though this does not immediately strike one as especially mafia-related, as Dainotto puts it, the story is “cunningly packed with allusions to the Mafia.” Verga, we learn, capitalized on growing interest for Sicilian organized crime sparked by the writings of Pasquale Villari, an historian who had been tasked with reporting back about the increasingly dismal sociopolitical circumstances of southern Italy, and Leopoldo Franchetti, a student of Villari’s who produced Sicily in 1876, a study of the budding form of criminality afflicting the island. Together, writings by Villari, Franchetti, and others suggested a rather critical diagnosis, that a distinctly modern form of crime had arisen from the material conditions of post-unification Sicily. A legal-political vacuum had allowed the Mafia to develop into a rather peculiar organism — “a set of medieval orders, behaviours, and cultural practices set in the heart of Italy’s troubled modernity,” that is, a new industry, one predicated on the violent seizure and preservation of private property.

To restore some honor to his native Sicily, Verga struck upon a strategy that would prove to be a successful one — rather than portraying the Mafia as it truly was, he instead portrayed it as the continuation of a chivalric tradition, rustic in origin, which embodied the heroic values that had led Italy to its unification in the first place. Culling tropes from the rhetoric of the right-wing regionalist politician Don Raffaele Palizzolo and the folklorist Giuseppe Pitrè, who would work for decades on a meticulous catalogue of Sicilian culture, Verga brought a sanitized Mafia to the page. This set the stage for what would become a widespread phenomenon, one that thrived off of a nostalgic public that had grown increasingly disillusioned with modern life. In time, however, even Verga would come to see, confronted with the increasingly brutal reality of Sicilian life, that he, along with others, had initiated a process that had spiraled out of control.

After this compelling start, Dainotto takes us to America, more specifically, to Hays-era Hollywood, out of which emerged the Howard Hughes-produced Scarface in 1932, directed by Howard Hawks and Richard Rosson. By this time, Mafia-type activities in the U.S. had begun to reach the public’s consciousness. Unlike its Sicilian forerunner, Dainotto writes, “the American Mafia in the United States of the early twentieth century was the product of subaltern classes,” that is, of ethnically and economically defined marginalized groups. It is here, in America, that the Mafia expands from its narrow interest in land to the criminal enterprises with which it is oft-associated, namely drug-running, gambling, prostitution, and the violence these involve.

In the fear felt by Americans over the misdeeds of such marginalized peoples, Dainotto sees a fundamental xenophobia aimed at the phenomenon of immigration and to its threats of ‘contamination’ and ‘miscegenation.’ The rise and success of the America mafia in these years, then, against a background of censorship and Prohibition, represents for Dainotto the fulfilment of a kind of American dream gone awry, represented in film as the myth of the self-made man, itself an appropriation of American individualism in its most idealized form. More and more, the outlaw came to represent the aspirations and frustrations of an entire nation as it experienced ongoing socioeconomic depression — in short, the gangster became both idol and scapegoat.

As American film begins to be distributed in Italy in the postwar years, such myths came back to their land of origin. In the meanwhile, Mussolini had taken power and began to spread the news that the Mafia had been eradicated, an absurd claim that hinged on the complicity of the media, which were made to censor all reports about Mafia activities, up to and including the murders of prominent figures. That said, as Dainotto puts it, there is “some sort of elective affinity between the goals of Fascism and the Mafia” — the enforcement of law and order and the protection of land against the demands of their common enemy, the socialist movement.

After the fall of Fascism after WWII, the depiction of the Mafia onscreen came back with a vengeance. Dainotto focuses especially on Salvatore Rosi’s important film Francesco Giuliano, “the first public denunciation of the alliance betwteen Roman politics and the Sicilian mafia,” in sharp contrast to the earlier, romanticizing vision of Pietro Germi. He also devotes a chapter to The Godfather, offering a compelling reading of the film as a tale reflecting an ambivalence to business in the context of America’s period of postwar economic expansion (here Dainotto also ably draws parallels to an earlier work of Coppola’s, the screenplay to Patton). As he writes, the message The Godfather conveys seems to be “that crime is the original accumulation of wealth and power out of which legal business and politics grow,” a message American audiences and Italian audiences alike were (if the box office is any judge) all too eager to receive.

It is fitting that, after reeling us in with his engrossing interpretation of the most well-known depiction of the Mafia we have, Dainotto should turn to the most brutal, disheartening material in the book, detailing the bloodshed of the 1980s, which left many hundreds dead. He juxtaposes the horrors of this period with the televised series La piovra [The Octopus], notable, Dainotto writes, for “[asking] us to identify with an anti-Mafia hero.” The series, which began in 1984, lasted until 2001, when pressure from Berlusconi, among others, brought it to an end. It was to be replaced with a rather different series—a panegyric to a ruthless former crime boss.

We come, then, to the inevitable — The Sopranos. For Dainotto, the well-known series is the Mafia myth turned on its head, made for a disillusioned audience that is all-too-familiar with the limitations of the American Dream. It is, in short, a Mafia made for the age of irony, an “exhausted” postmodern take on a long-familiar tale. The book ends, however, back in Italy. In a sense, the Mafia, too, is bound to repeat itself — Dainotto describes the Camorra as being “an avatar of the traditional Mafia,” a mix of archaic and postmodern, a perfect organization for an age of deregulation and globalization. Robert Saviano’s Gomorrah is an obvious choice as the cultural document of the transnational, borderless dimension of this phenomenon, in which ‘mafia’ has become, like everything else, an image, a brand. For Dainotto, the hybrid nature of Saviano’s book reflects the similarly fraught identity of today’s organized crime, caught between secrecy and spectacle, reality and virtual reality. It becomes harder and harder, he writes, to tell whether the criminal world mirrors social processes or whether it is the other way around.

The Mafia: A Cultural History ends on a brilliant, sad note, with its author resigned to a video game, living out “a dynamic model of personal participation in a predetermined logic” in which the possible success seems to be represented by “a better score.” The book truly comes full circle, from one fictionalized version of reality to another, except that now, reality and fiction alike are equally brutal and seemingly equally inescapable. The reader might wonder where to go, so to speak, once they have reached the last page. I would recommend reaching back into the details of Dainotto’s book, interludes that are, along with its central argumentative thread, among its greatest strengths. These are portraits of past figures and events, microhistories that complement the central argument and give a sense of the tentacular reach of the Mafia, across time, into the lives of individuals and the lives of nations. This book will surely become a new classic of the field (hopefully beyond Italian studies alone), one that gives us a deeper sense of the myths we live by and of the unsettling ways we convince ourselves that we are farther from certain realities than we actually are.

Posted on 11 May 2016

DYLAN J. MONTANARI is a graduate student at Stanford University. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Berfrois, and Quarterly Conversation, among others.