- - Monday, August 25, 2014

By John Dickie
Public Affairs, $35,748 pages

If, like this reviewer, you enjoyed reading English author John Dickie’s “Delizia!” an appropriately delicious and entertaining history of Italian cuisine, his massive new book, “Blood Brotherhoods,” may come as something of a surprise. Few subjects are less appetizing than organized crime, of which the mafia is a particularly horrific example. Yet Mr. Dickie brings much of the same humor and zest to the sordid history of the mafia that he did to the endless delights of the Italian table.

On second thought, however, there may be more of a connection between the distinctive Italian approaches to crime and cuisine than appears on the surface. My late friend Luigi Barzini marveled at the way his fellow countrymen “eat the dainty food of famous chefs with the same pleasure with which they devour gross peasant dishes, mostly composed of garlic and tomatoes, or fisherman’s octopus and shrimp, fried in heavily scented olive oil on a little deserted beach.”

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The same split personality that characterizes Italian dining also characterizes the nature of the modern Italian state, an artificial creation of the 1860s born of the high idealism of heroes such as Giuseppe Garibaldi and the cynical territorial ambitions of the House of Savoy, the Northern Italian dynasty that swallowed up the rest of the peninsula by force.

The resultant bourgeois monarchy, dominated by the cynical, economically powerful northerners, was never fully accepted by millions of impoverished Neapolitan, Calabrian and Sicilian peasants for whom unification meant yet another layer of bureaucracy and taxation — and an alien one at that — on top of everything they had endured under their own Bourbon dynasty.

Thus, while Italy emerged from the Risorgimento as a superficially unified, modern state, the unity was more apparent than real, especially in the south. There, in the poorest, most backward parts of the country, and in the absence of a strong sense of nationhood, a parallel power structure — a real sub-rosa state beneath the official, but unreal one — quickly developed: the mafia. Or, to be more accurate, the mafias, since three distinct criminal societies emerged in Southern Italy: the Cosa Nostra in Sicily, the ‘ndrangheta in Calabria and the camorra in and around Naples.

All three mafias grew and flourished thanks to, rather than in spite of, the unification of Italy. Where the old, authoritarian southern regime of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies had commanded some local loyalty and had no legal restraints on its efforts to maintain order, the new constitutional monarchy with its elected parliament and local and provincial offices, was fertile soil for criminal bosses to act as ward heelers for their more respectable allies in the local landowning and business communities.

Periodic attempts by the central authorities to crack down were comparable to mowing a lawn without uprooting the weeds. Things looked better for a while, but the undisturbed roots quickly gave rise to a new bumper crop of weeds. Mr. Dickie describes a number of truly courageous — but ultimately unsuccessful — early Italian crime-fighters, notably Cesare Mori, Benito Mussolini’s “Iron Prefect,” whose mass arrests and ruthless tactics lowered the Sicilian mafias’ profile for a while, but to little permanent effect.

Ironically, the chaos surrounding Mussolini’s fall from power — and the scramble for buyable voting blocs in the fragile postwar republic — raised the mafias to new heights of power and influence, penetrating national as well as regional governments and economies. Even today, some experts claim that the ‘ndrangheta alone accounts for 3 percent of Italy’s gross domestic product.

The greatest crime of all was the way in which this culture of violence and corruption made reluctant accessories out of decent men and women simply trying to survive in a society dominated by criminal brotherhoods. The dedicatory quote Mr. Dickie places at the beginning of his book, from the crusading Calabrian journalist and novelist Corrado Alvaro, says it best: “The blackest despair that can take hold of any society is the fear that living honestly is futile.”

It took another son of the Italian South to begin to turn the tables on Italian organized crime. Giovanni Falcone, born in Palermo, was a crusading prosecuting magistrate who waged effective legal war against the mafia octopus throughout his career. But it was his blatant murder, a 1992 roadside bombing in broad daylight that killed not only Falcone, but his wife and bodyguards that finally outraged public opinion and began to mobilize the justice system.

“Looking back from today over the history of Italy’s relationship with the mafias since the Second World War, and indeed since the very origins of the mafias in the nineteenth century” Mr. Dickie concludes, “the single biggest and most positive change is that the police and magistracy are, at long last, doing their job.” The struggle and sacrifice it took to get there add a note of inspiration to what would otherwise have been a depressing chronicle of evil triumphant.

Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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