It would be impossible for me to write about my travels in Sicily without a mention of their most famous export. Or perhaps as we shall see it also falls under the category of import.
I’m talking about the Mafia of course and let me be clear from the outset that this a personal reflection; and there are countless works of fiction and non fiction that will be more informative than these few words. (It’s been a while since I plugged The Dark Heart of Italy)
I could have passed the two weeks there and returned oblivious to the presence of any rackets. It was certainly no different to any other part of Italy in that respect. I’d been warned about “car park attendants” in Palermo who loiter in the free car parks demanding money for showing you an empty space (with the implicit threat to your vehicle if you don’t) but on the Sunday I arrived there was no sign. Perhaps they were in church. When I left three days later there were two guys who looked very pleased with vacancy I’d created but let’s not assume the worst. I knew that shops displaying the addiopizzo* sticker in their windows were refusing to pay extortionists, but it was so far off my radar I didn’t even look for them to photograph.
None of which prevented me from visiting the tiny hilltop settlements of Forza D’Agro and Savoca which Coppola chose to represent the town of Corleone in his trilogy (don’t mention the third one) of Godfather films. And yes I did take a seat outside Bar Vitelli where Michael seeks the hand of Appolonia.
Corleone exists but wasn’t suitably photogenic, and at the time that Mario Puzo wrote the book (1969), didn’t have a strong mafia presence to speak of. That was to change in the 80’s and 90’s when the Corleone clan were the leading, and arguably most violent group.
All of which creates a dichotomy. Sicily would like to consign the mafia to history, in much the same way that we in the UK would like to see the end of terrorism in Northern Ireland. Both have made great progress, but cultures are not easily changed when people have a fondness for their history. In Belfast the painted kerbstones, bunting and murals remain and continue to be inflammatory. In Sicily they may eschew the past but then they can’t help but capitalise upon it, and who is to say it cannot rise again?
The political and judicial forces that combined to tackle the mafia have been weakened by the likes of Berlusconi as a way of mitigating his own corruption, and indeed in Blood Rain, Michael Dibdin makes the point that the politicians are now a greater threat.
So it would be easy to see the Mafia purely through the eyes of Hollywood and the pages of crime novels, but let’s just examine two more experiences from my first day in Sicily and my last. On the former I had some time to kill in Monreale while waiting for the cathedral to open. It was cold and wet, the latter making taking pictures less attractive than usual. So I grabbed a slice of sfincione and made small talk with a man on a street corner despite the limitations of our respective linguistic skills. On one corner opposite us was the grey concrete of the police headquarters, but it was another corner he wanted me to see where two marble plaques were erected.
Basile was a Carabinieri captain investigating the Mafia who was shot and killed here in 1980. The murderers fired repeatedly into his back. He was carrying his four-year old daughter at the time who was luckily unharmed.
The second experience was as I returned to Palermo airport and travelled along the main A29 road where tall obelisks rise above a lay-by on either side of the road at a place called Capaci.
Here in 1992 they killed the anti-Mafia magistrate Giuseppe Falcone (after whom the airport is now named). They did so by planting a 400kg bomb under the road which was triggered remotely from the hillside above the road.
Falcone’s wife and three policemen were not as fortunate as Basile’s daughter and were killed too. The Mafia toasted the Capaci bombing with champagne.
The hillside now bears a clear message…
… if you have a lens that can pick it out.