A reporter’s strange odyssey into a dark family history, set against the violence, secrets, and ancient ways of Sicily.
San Francisco Chronicle foreign correspondent Viviano (Dispatches From the Pacific Century, 1993) had a special affinity for his grandfather, a proud, enigmatic Sicilian with whom he shared an enduring wanderlust. Before his death in 1993, his grandfather revealed to him a family legend of lu monacu (“the monk”): The author’s great-great-grandfather was a notorious Sicilian bandit who dressed himself as a priest and was killed in a vendetta with the Mafioso Domenico Valenti in 1870s. Like all good reporters, Viviano was unable to pass up a story, so he set off for Sicily to unearth the reality behind this family myth. In the little town of Terrasini, the author quickly made his way among the hospitable locals and was “adopted” by the Meddicani (Sicilians who had repatriated from America). This warm reception hid darker realities, however, and his investigation was initially stymied by archivists, bureaucrats, and local gossips alike. Viviano found himself haunted (and the locals “entranced”) by the ongoing Mafia trials, which followed the assassination of numerous law enforcement figures. He met the revered prosecutor Judge Falcone (who seemed to “direct his own murder trial from the grave”) and his nemesis Toto Riina (a vicious Don who murdered the entire families of the pentiti, or testifying mobsters). He eventually came to view the legendary Sicilian brand of chesty, libertarian self-interest as a metaphor of the world at large, just as he became entranced with the customs of the region—the robust meals, eccentric companions, criminal fiefdoms, and ominous traditions of loyalty and silence.
Through dogged efforts and happenstance, Viviano pieces together a tale of thwarted love and murder, but his warm and (mostly) convincing take on the world’s most permanent outlaw society is ultimately more memorable.