Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia by John Dickie - review by Lilian Pizzichini

Lilian Pizzichini

Lemon Squeezers

Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia


Hodder & Stoughton 483pp £20 order from our bookshop

JOHN DICKIE IS senior lecturer in Italian Studies at University College, London. He specialises in 'representations of the Italian South, Italian nationalism, the cultural history of liberal Italy, and cultural and critical theory'. This bodes well for an authoritative history of the Sicilian mafia, from its obscure beginnings to its current resurgence after years in the dock. He is also described as being an 'advertising copywriter', so one would expect him to respect the power of words. It is a surprise, then, that he starts his book with a translation for 'pentito' that is off the mark. The 'pentiti' were a phenomenon of the late 1990s: they were mafia men who turned state's evidence in return for the acquittal of all charges against them and a place on the witness protection programme. Dickie translates the word as 'defector', which, although it connotes a betrayal of allegiance, does not convey the sense of penitence or repentance associated with 'pentito', or, from a mafia perspective, the idea of being a 'supergrass'. These last two elements to the meaning of 'pentito' are key: the quasi- religious hold the mafia has on its celebrants is integral to its structure and continuing existence, while the terrible consequences which, it is threatened, will befall those who turn on the organisation point to its devastating criminality. And. as Dickie's stow makes clear. definitions. or the lack of them, are crucial to an understanding of the mafia.

The author compensates for his lack of verbal acuity by pointing out that the sloppy methodology and downright prejudice of other commentators has hampered a clear discussion of what the mafia constitutes, and this confusion has worked to the organisation's advantage. For too long Sicllian culture has been portrayed as

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