REBELS AND MAFIOSI by James Fentress


Death in a Sicilian Landscape
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A thoroughly researched history of the origins of the Mafia in Sicily.

Journalist and translator Fentress (Eco’s The Search for the Perfect Language, 1995) reveals that the first printed occurrences of the word “mafia” date from the 1860s in the Palermo region. Derived from Palermitan slang for “flashy,” it soon grew to mean the “kingdom within a kingdom,” the “network of submerged power,” the criminal underworld. Fentress’s thesis is that “the story of the mafia cannot be understood except against the background of the revolution,” so he proceeds in his extremely detailed text to examine the uprisings in Sicily in 1820, 1848, 1860, and 1866—the latter “transforming itself into the mafia.” After an initial chapter dealing with pre-Mafia Sicily (beginning with the transfer of the island from Spain to Naples in 1743) and with a failed uprising in 1820, Fentress deals with each major revolutionary period in a separate chapter. The 1848 revolt succeeded briefly, only to be put down six months later by the Neapolitans. The 1860 revolution featured the derring-do of Garibaldi, and this chapter therefore contains some of Fentress’s most engaging narrative. In June 1860, after a “stunning military victory” by Garibaldi’s vastly outnumbered followers, the Neapolitans capitulated and Garibaldi assumed his stature as a Sicilian hero—if not a deity. Slipping into the interstice separating order from chaos was the criminal class known by all in the 1860s as the Mafia. (Fentress dismisses as “nonsense” the numerous folk stories about the Mafia’s medieval origins.) In an interesting section pointing out the parallels between criminals and politicians, Fentress observes that their talents “are broadly similar.” He also notes that the Mafia’s rise to power can be attributed partially to the Sicilian trust of “brigands and criminals . . . [rather] than the authorities.” Fentress ends his history with the chilling observation that the “mafia are the soldiers of the permanent revolution” (i.e., of the continuing “refusal to recognize . . . the legitimacy of authority”).

Sometimes exciting, sometimes tedious, always supported by a sturdy foundation of fact and tireless archival research. (3 maps, 18 plates)

Pub Date: June 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-8014-3539-0
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Cornell Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 2000