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Sicilian Christian Democrat secrets

By Domenico Pacitti

Figlio di partito: Visti da bambino gli amici di papà [The Party Man’s Son: A Child’s-Eye View of Father’s Friends] by Alfonso Sciangula. Published in 2004 by Armando Siciliano Editore, Messina, Sicily, 123 pages, €10, ISBN 88 7442 331 4.

Alfonso Sciangula tells of Italian political intrigue, Mafia and corruption from the early 1970s. The perspective is that of a growing child whose sensitive mind records, traumatically, the regular events in the daily life of his father, a Sicilian politician in the Christian Democrat party under Giulio Andreotti. The place is the city of Agrigento in Sicily, suggestively set in the vicinity of the Valley of Temples, Port Empedocles and Caos, the birthplace of Luigi Pirandello. Sciangula, a law graduate and now in his early thirties, has become an anti-Mafia activist who investigates the Mafia presence in political, economic and social life both in Sicily and beyond.

Sciangula’s narrative style tends naturally towards the dramatic and is couched in irony which is at times searing. The effect is further heightened by atypically Italian short sentences, compact paragraphing and by the direct, informal language which incorporates colourful sayings and set expressions sometimes in Sicilian dialect. Most of the book’s twenty-six chapters are no more than three or four pages long, which helps make the book a page-turner.

The idea of writing the book, we are told, springs from a threat Sciangula once received: “Unless you keep quiet and behave yourself, someone will clean their blood-stained knife on your father’s still warm dead body.” Sciangula’s chief purpose is to challenge what he sees as the absolute evil, namely the tradition of collective silence (omertà) which prevents important truths from getting out.

The opening section of the first chapter sets the tone and rhythm for the rest of the book:

“Father’s friends are all important and fine people.
 The most important of them all was accused of murder and Mafia association. The second, in order of importance, was accused of corruption and external complicity in Mafia association.
 Another, a building constructor, was accused of corruption, extortion, recycling dirty money, rigging tenders and, inevitably, of contravening Article 416 bis of the criminal code [for Mafia-type association].
 Then there are many others, more or less important but all with the same sort of charges in common, and some of them have already been convicted.
 My father too was accused by magistrates, but only of corruption. Then one day he died at work before they had time to put him on trial.
 Another of my father’s friends, a very important man, died, or rather he didn’t die – he was killed, and lots of nasty things were said about him though he was never officially accused of anything. So perhaps he turned out to be the most honest of them all.
 What I remember about him, the few times that I saw him, is that he had snow white hair and never spoke. At most, as his party’s old tradition taught, he would whisper into my father’s and his other friends’ ears while covering his mouth with his hand.
 Not like some politicians today who get caught making inconvenient declarations when the studio cameras are off, or who allow their lips to be read.” (p.10)

Towards the end of the chapter Sciangula relates how he once saw one of his father’s friends first strike his son for using the word Mafia and then ask the boy who had taught him to repeat such nonsense. This considerably upset Sciangula who had introduced him to the term.

The book’s chapters unfold in rapid succession always with fresh insights into a wide variety of topics: from reactions to the murder of Aldo Moro to the lowdown on how lobbies get moving and are financed, where the cash is held and how it is divided up and shared out; how local political elections are won and how power is gained; how the Mafia operates and how to find out everything about anyone; father’s police escort and his photograph album, and much more. This last chapter begins:

“Father’s friends are all very religious. In fact, they compete to see who has had the most photos taken with popes.” (p.26)

Here we learn that one friend boasted that he had been photographed with three different popes and that all the friends together regretted not having managed to secure photographs with one particular pope who died unexpectedly, thus denying them all the opportunity to complete their album collections.

Sciangula describes his account as that of a tragediatore, the dialect word which Sicilians sometimes use to label truth-tellers. You will find tragediatori both where you have the preconditions for tragedy and also where the tragedy has already taken place, says Sciangula. But Sciangula is unlikely to wreak any tragedies on himself here since he is sufficiently sparing in naming names.

Curiously, part of the editorial summary situates the entire story within a virtual context as the understandable and excusable result of a child's imagination. This seems to be intended as an ironic parody of the ritual editorial precautions against accusations of defamation or worse, and it is quickly undone in the same summary and convincingly contradicted by the author's own introduction and by the facts recounted. The suggestion seems to be: "Give me a mask and I will tell you the truth", but in this case the mask is so thin as to be virtually nonexistent.

A large photograph at the start of the book depicts a group of over thirty men, formally dressed and huddled together, posing for the camera – presumably father together with his friends. But there is no caption or explanation. The strategic omission of certain names linked to certain events reflects the limits of what can be safely and explicitly said. At such points Sciangula is addressing those who are sufficiently familiar with the facts to be able to read between the lines.

Sciangula has not only provided an important document with a novel perspective on the inner workings of Sicilian politics; he has also succeeded in doing this both convincingly and entertainingly. Armando Siciliano too must be congratulated for this latest example of outstanding ongoing work in promoting a deeper understanding of Sicilian culture across a wide spectrum – from this, the tragically true at one end to the breathtakingly beautiful at the other.

Students of Italian studies and others interested in the daily reality of corrupt politics and Mafia will learn more from a careful reading of Sciangula's book than from a dozen pseudo-specialist treatises on the subject by writers who engage in arid intra-academic recycling or peddle inaccurate accounts based on glamourised cinematic sources.

Note: This review was first published by JUST Book Reviews on January 26 2005.