Pursuing The Mafia Into All 'Four Corners' Of Palermo
Drive on highway E90 out of the Sicilian town of Palermo towards the airport and you pass a tall, orange memorial on the highway dedicated to the anti-mafia judge Giovanni Falcone; he was killed by a massive bomb blast when traveling on that highway in 1992.
Falcone and his fellow judge Paolo Borsellino are perhaps the most famous of those gunned down by the Sicilian mafia during its brutal war with the Italian state in the 80s and 90s.
Guiseppe di Piazza's debut novel TheFour Corners of Palermo deals with the early days of that war, when the "Cosa Nostra had lost its mind ... chasing after a dream of power straight out of Shakespeare: in order to force the world to kneel at its feet, it was willing to forget there had ever been rules."
The book is centered around a crime reporter in his early 20s who has sex, girls, and booze on his mind. But he lives in Palermo, a "city that was a slaughterhouse writ large," "methodically going about committing suicide," a "nest of vipers," constantly at risk of drowning in its own blood. The unnamed reporter's life is, in many ways, defined by the events around him. Coming home at night, he often has to "scrape human blood off the soles of his shoes at the front door."
The book is essentially four novellas, each revolving around a different crime, all connected by the nameless reporter. Each is illuminating in its own way, examining the very Sicilian notions of honor, duty, and ties to family. And in its own way, each crime is more awful than the others. As di Piazza's main character says, "deep in every Sicilian heart, there is icy madness."
Di Piazza gives us a terrific portrayal of the brutality of the Mafia. He does an even more admirable job bringing the reporter to life, his inner workings and his confusion. He is capable of moments of sanity, moments of love and moments of cruelty; every day he has to cope with the horror of what is passing in front of him. "I dealt with death," he writes, "I talked to policemen, women, and little kids. I searched, I found, and I wrote. But I understood nothing."
Surrounded by tragedy, the young reporter attempts to find meaning in carving out a private life for himself. His escape is the pursuit of a series of women, each more exotic than the next: from Sicily, from Milan, in Northern Italy, from France. "I started to believe that beauty was an antidote to the venom of life: I ingested stronger and stronger doses," he writes.
But are there too many beautiful women around him? And why do none of them really exist as characters, rather than stock figures for him to flirt or sleep with? And why is he always cooking? While "Aglio, olio e muddica atturrarta, or pasta with garlic, olive oil and toasted breadcrumbs" or "pasta with a picchio-pacchio sauce" sounds about right for what a 23-year-old can whip up, these descriptions feel like clichés, as if every book on Sicily should mention its gelato ("a metal cup of spongato at Villa Sperlinga was the best gelato this world offered") or food, divine though they might be.
Even while he captures the ferocity of the moment, Palermo, as a city, doesn't ever come alive. The title is borrowed from the name of Palermo's most famous square and though di Piazza also takes care to mention its most famous gelato stand, the city with all its rich history still seems flat in his hands.
But these are small quibbles in this morality play, where the lines blur between wrong and right, good and evil, where even ordinary people are capable of crimes — sometimes unknowingly. The book is a fluid, quick read, even if the episodic nature doesn't really allow di Piazza enough time for deep character development. The workings of the police, their dealings with reporters all seem honest and true, as does daily life at the small newspaper (di Piazza himself was a reporter in Sicily in the early 80s).
In the novels of the great Sicilian crime writer Andrea Camilleri, there's always the hint of farce, an underlying humor. His setting, for example, is a fictional small town; his protagonist, Inspector Salvo Montalbano, often arranges his investigations around visits to his favorite trattorias while the antics of the office buffoon Catarella provide moments of great comic relief.
Di Piazza's world, while it includes the trattorias (or at least a great deal of cooking), is starker, bloodier, more brutal — devoid of humor and for all of that, perhaps more real and believable.
Nishant Dahiya is NPR's Asia editor.
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