Why Mafia?

Book review is generally defined as an analysis based on content, style, and merit (see the Wikipedia entry). However, no matter whether it is descriptive or critical, reading (and writing) a review is like eating the ingredients of pizza separately. In other words, only reading the whole book gives the reader a full appreciation of its contents. Needless to say, then, what follows is my analysis of Made Men, hoping that you will find the ingredients palatable and that you will decide to put to the test the book as a whole by yourself.
My expertise in the subject matter stems from a more than a decade-long teaching stint during which I taught the social science course on Italians in North America (at York University in Toronto), and the subject of organized crime was a significant part of this overview of Italian immigration.
The book entitled Made men. Mafia Culture and the Power of Symbols, Rituals, and Myth (published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers in 2013; pp. xi, 169) is the result of a collaborative effort between an organized crime expert (Antonio Nicaso) and a university professor, specialist in semiotics (Marcel Danesi). The purpose of this book is to answer the question Why is Mafia so successfully resilient and able to attract so many young men?. One of the answers to this question, thoroughly espoused in the book, points to the fact that the organized crime’s leadership is aware of the media’s power to manipulate and overblow its mystical origins and financial success. Furthermore, the authors claim that once the “Mafia mystique” is debunked, the basis of the mafia’s attraction would crumble and its power would fade. Therefore, the book’s purpose is to “demystify the image of the gangster as a man of honor” (x), “to discredit [mafia] culture, wherever and however it exists, in the hope that it will deter young people from joining it ”. (xi)
In seven chapters, each about 20 pages long, the volume presents the following topics: Origins and Organization, Honor, Rituals and Symbols, Appearance, Names, Myth, and Conclusion. Notes, Bibliography, and Index, as well as two short paragraphs entitled About the Authors conclude the volume. It is not disclosed who the intended readers are, but it seems that young people and those generally interested in organized crime might profit greatly from reading it.
It is no mean task to disentangle the fable from the truth as regards any organized crime group: all the elements that bind this type of group together prevent a reasonably objective and factual description of its workings: the secrecy under which it operates, the initiation ceremonies, the intended victims, the type and extent of its operations are just some of the difficulties faced by the authors to unravel the “Mafia mystique”. The authors tend to support the nebulousness of the “myth” in that they mix, in their descriptions, elements from film and from real crime groups: in mixing fact and fiction, however, they are not giving the book’s purpose a whole lot of support. Disentangling and “demystifying” are complex activities especially when fact and fiction are intertwined and fiction is always reworked by organized groups for their purposes.
After a quick run-down of the possible origins of the word Mafia, the authors describe the top-down and relatively well-known features of the power structure of organized groups. Then honor takes the center stage; Nicaso and Danesi bring in the Cavalleria rusticana, purportedly to illustrate that the unwritten code of honor in this piece works like the code of honor used by organized crime groups. Since in Godfather III this opera is performed as the backdrop to the violent action to be carried out, their conclusion is that “…it seems that life and art mirror one another, influencing one another constantly.” (p. 26). This notion is repeatedly pointed out in the book; for ex., “The Mafia loves to romanticize its image. In fact, the notion of padrino (godfather) comes from the movie, not from real Mafia culture.” (34)
Although Nicaso and Danesi dwell on the concept of “omerta`”, underscoring its power to be one of the chief attractions for possible members, they only marginally touch upon the fact that the “emotional influence“ of this concept is in fact its great power to instil fear especially in the Mafioso himself. In other words, the greatest among the attractions carries also the most power to subjugate the person psychologically.
There is no doubt that the book is a good introduction to the topic of the Mafia. Furthermore, the authors deal with not only Mafia, but also ‘Ndrangheta, Cosa Nostra, Camorra, Yakuza and other organized crime groups. However, the purpose of the authors to discredit “Mafia culture” is achieved only superficially. It is ironic that in the era of multimedia messaging, when books and reading do not really succeed in communicating successfully, the authors had to resort to writing a book: it is clearly difficult to present complex material visually in a stimulating way. This is why the Godfather trilogy has more staying power and presents surely a more attractive picture of the Mafioso’s life than the tangible description of an “insider’s” life as mostly boring, sedentary, distasteful, leading to heart problems and obesity, all things hardly mystique-inducing, as explained in the book Honor Thy Father, written by Gay Talese more than 30 years ago (not listed in their bibliography). Even Hollywood cannot depict boredom successfully.
The most glaring omission in the book’s bibliography is Peter E. Bondanella’s Hollywood Italians: Dagos, Palookas, Romeos, Wise Guys, and Sopranos. Bondanella deromanticised Mafiosi thoroughly in his publication nine years ago.
The other surprising aspect of the book’s argumentation rests on the fact that many statements are chronologically and geographically vague and without solid proof; furthermore, various claims mix the past and the present, North America and Sicily/Italy, the insiders’ and the outsiders’ views. Some examples of surprising statements and phrases include: “It is no coincidence that the Pope [John Paul II] was not Italian and, thus, did not fully grasp the nuances of the Mafia-Church connection.” (p. 57), or “the Italian Romantic writer Giovanni Verga” (25), or “crime culture”, “Mafia culture” (passim) when “culture” is never defined.
The reasoning around “Mafia culture” reflects a one-sided view of Sicily, as if it stayed unchanged from 200 years ago: a fact repeated by many other esteemed authors and thoroughly and tactfully dismantled in Nunzio La Fauci’s Lo spettro di Lampedusa (Edizioni ETS, 2001). Moreover, quoting Banfield shows some lapsed bibliographical knowledge, since Banfield’s hypothesis of amoral familism has been systematically discredited a while back.
It is also disappointing not to find a thorough semiotic analysis of the linguistic terms and other symbols used by organized crime groups. Listing them in isolation does not explain their syntagmatic and paradigmatic relationships, their underlying force within the system.
However, these shortcomings can easily be corrected in the second edition.
In conclusion, if it is true that young men are attracted to the Mafia on account of fictional portrayal of this group, then surely dismantling this fictional portrayal is necessary. Nevertheless, what is more at stake is the attraction money (and all the trappings it brings) and power (gained mostly by violence) have for certain youth, and this can only be countered by 1) a solid educational system which relies on knowledge gained through scientific methodology and logical reasoning and 2) a passionate and caring engagement with all aspects of humanity which can best be garnered from reading, appreciating and analyzing great literary works.


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