Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Book Review - Midnight in Sicily by Peter Robb

Midnight in Sicily by Peter Robb

Sydney : Duffy & Snellgrove, 1996                                      ISBN 187598920X

Re-reading books can be a fraught business - the impression a book has on a reader can be a combination of the content of the book, the time and place it was read, the state of the reader's mind when reading, how receptive they were to the book's content, and how that content reacts to everything else in the reader's mind. Re-reading a book also takes time away from the possibility of reading something new....

Some books, I think, should not be re-read: they are a book for a certain stage of a reader's life, and revisiting them would produce nothing positive, and in fact might spoil the good memories of that book. On the road would be disappointing for me if re-read, as it just wouldn't seem as ground-breaking to me now as it did when I first opened the covers of my copy. My Father tells me that the worst thing he did was re-read Seven pillars of wisdom in his middle-age, after first reading it in his early twenties; the re-reading destroyed forever the great opinion he had of the work from his first reading (Seven pillars is, despite this, still on my list of books to read again someday).

Other books though, are a re-readers delight - seemingly inexhaustible mines filled with nuggets of literary gold - Midnight in Sicily is such a book. What seems astounding is that a title ostensibly about the Mafia in Sicily, written by an expatriate Australian (who has never lived in Sicily), could be such a book.

Peter Robb did spend about fifteen years living in Naples, so he does have some experience of Italy. He also had the expatriate's eye for the ambiguities and absurdities of life that a local might pass over. In particular, when it comes to organised crime in Italy, he was not involved, so could ask questions and probe in ways that perhaps locals were unable to do.

I wrote that this book is ostensibly about the Mafia - reading this book also gives you a potted history of Italy, of Italian food, Italian Art, Italian Literature and naturally Italian politics. It is also a great travel book. The wide-ranging arc that Robb takes in his book about crime is what makes it such a gem to re-read. Each time it's read the book gives the reader something new, whether it be the influence of the Arabs on the food of Southern Italy, or the outcome of the great Naples earthquake of 1980, or which late-night-cafe is the favourite haunt of the ladies-of-the-night (who are not all ladies).

Robb could have written a serviceable history of the Mafia along the lines of Mafia Republic, but he wanted to do more - he wanted to get under the skin of the Italian psyche and try to explain to people like me just how something like the Mafia can even exist in what seems to be a western liberal democracy, and become so pervasive.

And in fact most of what might seem at first blush to be off-subject in Midnight in Sicily merely serves to show how pervasive the Mafia is in Italian life. A rumination on the history of ice-cream reminds us that the mafia used to control the snow-trade from Mt. Etna, where the original ice-creams came from. A description of the Mattanza leads into stories of Mafia massacres, a discussion of Lampedusa's Il Gattopardo segues into a visit to his old villa to see the (then) current mayor of Palermo, who was struggling to reduce Mafia influence in the city.

With great skill, Robb brings the reader into the world of the Mafia, where what is not said is in many ways more important than what is - that seemingly innocuous things like receiving a telegram from a certain person has much more meaning than what might be conveyed from the message enclosed. Robb shows how the Mafia has corrupted society by exploiting the Italian character, and by being able to quickly move into the "cracks" that appear in the body politic owing to the sclerotic nature of the Italian State.

Midnight in Sicily was written in 1995, and the focal point of the book is the beginning of the trial in Palermo of Giulio Andreotti - Robb weaves his story through-and-through this book and what stands out with this particular re-read is how in Italian politics only the names change - Berlusconi would fit into this book like an arm into a sleeve (he does appear in a cameo at what was then the start of his political career).

Robb's diversions into Italian history, especially recent history, are an elegy for an Italy that had lasted for Millennia, only to be destroyed after the war by the Mafia. There is a fin-de-siecle quality about Midnight in Sicily, and a repressed rage at how men and women of integrity have been thwarted at every turn by those who crave power and money, who have turned the Mafia into an octopus with tentacles that reach into every sector of business and politics.

Robb desperately wants those who are fighting this insidious curse to prevail, but his rational mind requires him to believe that while some victories might be won, defeat of the Mafia will only occur with a change of mindset and culture in Italy, which seems too big a hope to sustain.

All this information is imparted with a wonderfully lucid, limpid writing style, and an artist's gift of deep observation and synthesis, which leaves the reader wiser at the end of the book. And the end of the book will come very soon, as it is one that is read quickly, even if it is digested slowly.

As an insight into the Mafia, this book is invaluable. As an insight into Italy, it's un-put-downable. as a work of literature, it's definitely a minor classic.

Highly Recommended.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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