One evening several years ago I was driving home from Bendigo down empty country roads, and a voice on the radio began describing in the most voluptuous detail a market day in the city of Palermo; the colour, noise and smells of a city on the other side of the world that filled my ears, nose and eyes. The smell of the day's catch, the overpowering heat and colour of filtered Sicilian sunlight beneath awnings, hanging meat still dripping from the recent kill, the shock of colour in new-picked vegetables; and all the time, in my guts, I could feel a certain insistent menace tugging like a fish-hook.
This was the Vucciria, in the mid-70s, the marketplace in Palermo that gave Peter Robb his most powerful sensual charge on arrival in the ancient city. The voice I heard was a Radio National broadcast of the first chapter of this astonishing book.
That menace, which invisibly fills the pages like a secret translation, is made painfully concrete in the details of Italy's recent history which are laid out here. But this is much more than a history of the mafia and its collaborations with Italy’s political class, a history recounted with more detail elsewhere. It is a kind of thesis, which is never stated outright, but which is the implication of the book as a whole. The thesis is that it is impossible to separate the political, culinary, artistic, criminal, architectural, literary, geographic, social and historical aspects of Italian culture without doing violence to one or all of them. Mafia, just as much as gelati or the paintings of Renato Guttuso, is a product of the Italian character; and one can’t come to a complete understanding of one without at least a partial understanding of the others.
This is where the book’s quality and its strangeness lies. Reading the reviews on the Amazon.com website, you can see how challenging and even unsatisfactory many people find this. What kind of book is this anyway? they seem to ask, unable to accommodate the fact that it can be historical nonfiction, memoir, art criticism and food writing all at once, often within a single page.
I was reminded of this when I came across this statement by Giulio Andreotti, the former Prime Minister and associate of some very dangerous people, about Sicily:
"I found myself with my stomach full of marvelous but terrible food, the pasta con le sarde, the cassata; and not only did I not understand a thing there but I was ill too. I wonder whether there's a connection between food like this and the growth of the mafia."I read this book a few years ago, prompted into finding it by that radio broadcast, and bought it for friends. The main effect it had on me was to awaken a burning desire to see Italy, in particular the mezzogiorno, to study the language and read anything I could get my hands on about Italy’s recent history and particularly the mafia. I’m finally getting to satisfy that desire later this year.
If I have a criticism, it’s with the final quarter of the book, which deals mostly with the painful last months and death of the Sicilian expressionist Renato Guttuso, who recorded the Vucciria in all its glory. By this time, the weight of all the corpses recorded in the previous chapters starts to burden the reader, and the blood and the corruption becomes tedious and depressing. Right when the book really should be gathering to its climax, it begins to fall away and ends with a whimper.
The book has no reproductions, even though a great deal of time is taken describing pictures, like the painting by Guttuso of the Vucciria. And the lack of an index is a serious flaw, especially given that this the sort of book you end up picking up and rereading as certain things come back into focus every time you hear those names again on the news. Because this is a very recent history indeed. More information is coming to light all the time about the events recounted here.
I notice that since this book was published, Sicily’s main airport was re-named after the heroic antimafia magistrates Falcone and Borsellino. This is a good sign in a country which officially didn’t even admit the existence of the mafia until the 1980s, years after the word had become a cliché in Hollywood movies.
The world looks to Italy with the same fondness it reserves for very few others, like Ireland maybe; countries we all recognise have given us something important. We hope the spirit of the nation wins out, despite the spivs and chancers like Andreotti and the repellant Berlusconi.
The quality of Peter Robb's writing which stays in the mouth after you’ve read it is its overpowering sensuality, tinged with blood. It has the quality of a testimonial, given with generosity but also with truth. After reading it again, I felt that these are the sorts of things that need to be said, the history that certain countries have got to live with if they’ve got any chance at all.