The Honoured Society

The Honoured Society: The Sicilian Mafia Observed by Norman Lewis

As absorbing as Naples ’44 (Lewis’ memoirs from newly Allied-occupied Campania) but less of a travelogue, more a meticulous history. In explaining the Mafia’s grip on Sicily up to the 1960s, Lewis discovers an island with one foot still planted in the feudal era, a people with a uniquely stubborn yet defeatist moral compass, and a catalogue of violence so appalling and so frequent that only a May Day peasant massacre can trigger any prolonged outrage.

Reading about the near-endless clan vendettas (omertá), and the tight-lipped ordinary folk whose lives were all touched by their murderous spiral, you can sense the frustration of the island’s carabinieri growing with every page turn. It’s especially heartbreaking to read about good men like Placido Rizzotto who tried to bring change. When Sicily is dragged into the twentieth century, it’s on the Mafia’s own terms – corrupt construction contracts and the conversion of Lebanon’s opium into heroin to ship to the Americas.

Although he finds the landscapes so morose and un-Mediterranean, Lewis has a brilliant facility for describing them. Here is a choice paragraph describing the brooding atmosphere of a town whose name Mario Puzo later borrowed for The Godfather:

Corleone is built under a lugubrious backdrop of mountains the colour of lead, and its seedy houses are wound round a strange black rocky outcrop jutting up from the middle of the town. Upon this pigmy mesa is built the town lockup, and from its summit the crows launch themselves in search of urban carrion. Behind the cliff-shadowed menaced streets of Corleone stretches a savage entranced landscape of rock and grizzled pasture, for centuries the setting of a bloody routine of feuds and ambuscades. A few miles away is the famous wood of Ficuzza, a place of ghosts and legends, over possession of which the two families of Barbaccia and Lorello have been slowly destroying one another since 1918.

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