Midnight in Sicily (Peter Robb)

‘Everything has to change so everything can stay the same’

Midnight in Sicily, 2015 (Vintage). First published in 1996.

I knew I had a few days of serious, unalloyed pleasure ahead of me when on page two of Midnight in Sicily I turned to my girlfriend and dropped on her lap unasked a breezeblock of facts about the Mafia. It was then that I warned her that there would many more interruptions to her own reading to come. First published in 1996, my Vintage edition contained two postscripts, from 2003 and 2007 respectively, updating the reader to subsequent events on the peninsula since its initial release. It was in these final pages that we discover the fate of the man at the centre of the book – and at the heart of Italian politics for decades – Giulio Andreotti.

There’s no longer much credit left in judging a person’s character by their physical appearance, but when you encounter a man who looked like Andreotti did, its irresistible. Hunchbacked, short and impassive behind a set of thick-rimmed glasses, Andreotti looks exactly like the kind of man whose bureaucratic exterior barely bothers to conceal a wily, perhaps even sinister, operator. That he had existed near or at the summit of Italian politics for so long gave weight to his Machiavellian aura. When Robb began writing the book, the seven-times prime minster was on trial for association with the Mafia. He was also on trial in Perugia on a murder charge.   

Trying to disentangle the fishing nets of Italian politics from 1945 onwards is an ordeal from which most would shirk. Robb, with his profound and widespread understanding of the country, and of the south specifically, manages to pull apart enough so as to be able to cast a new net comprised not just of a history of the Italian Republic and its relationship to Cosa Nostra but also the cultural history of Sicily, Naples, and the Mezzogiorno as a whole. The Vatican, financial scandals, kidnap, murder and conspiracy abound. But Robb brings levity to this murky story by giving us the shining backdrop of Sicily. Much of this backdrop is devoted to food. It’s a cliché to say that the culinary habits of a population provide an insight into its people, but it’s also partly true. The descriptions of food and hospitable, lavish meals in Midnight in Sicily are described in loving detail:

Big refrigerated lorries carried off the entire catch every morning before dawn. Shellfish, however, abounded. They were for the locals. There were glossy mussels, sleek brown datteri di mare, sea dates who lived inside narrow holes they burrowed in the soft yellow tufa below the waterline, cannelicchi, which were Chinaman’s fingernails, pipis, taratafoli, vongole, others whose names eluded me, though not the memory of their shape and flavour, the smooth mottled shells and the dark grooved ones.

The art and literature of the south also feature heavily. The artist Renato Guttuso’s story is emblematic in more that just one way. His La Vucciria is not only considered the image of Palermo and its most famous market, but also Sicily and its way of life in general. But Guttuso is also connected to the Rome of Andreotti and the Christian Democrats. The description Robb provides of the end of Guttuso’s life is, like most of the tales with which Robb furnishes his book, extremely interesting, deeply unsettling and without a clarifying conclusion. That’s because there isn’t one, or at least it hasn’t been written yet.

La Vucciria (1974), Renato Guttuso.

Robb takes us confidently, but with lingering slow ease, through topics as various as the history of the fork, the Arab influence on Sicilian words and diet, and Lucky Luciano’s alleged role in the Allied invasion of Sicily. But running through it all, just as in Sicilian society, is the Mafia, and hidden even further and through several intermediaries behind them, is Andreotti, and a string of shadowy figures from Rome. This isn’t a book that glamorises Cosa Nostra or the Camorra, and it never turns its head from their egregious crimes. But instead of merely pointing out what we already know about them, it places these criminal groups in their Italian, Sicilian and historical contexts, and reveals how and why they developed into the behemoths they became, and remain.

Throughout, Robb provides countless stories that deliver no sense of resolution or closure. Bad things happen to good people, and those that survive are left to pick up the shattered remains of their lives. One of the refrains Robb returns to again and again is that in Italy, ‘everything has to change so everything can stay the same’. Things in Robb’s pages do often change, usually for the worst. But though the silver linings are few, they are bright enough to sustain hope. One notable spark is the photojournalist Letizia Battaglia, who captured the Mafia at its most violent and destructive in Palermo in the 70s and 80s. Her monochrome pictures testify to a poverty that existed then in Sicily that looks like Victorian Britain but without the industry.

Ucciso mentre andava in garage (1976), Letizia Battaglia. [Image: Musée]

One of Letitzia’s pictures later came to national attention. At his trial in 1993, a photo taken of Andreotti standing next to Nino Salvo, a high-ranking mobster associate, was the sole piece of concrete evidence that Andreotti knew Salvo, which Andreotti flatly denied. Readers hitherto unaware of Andreotti and his fate can turn to Midnight in Sicily for further information, but can expect no comforting answers at the end of their reading.

The sorry accounts of murder, corruption, decay and injustice are belied by the stories told of simple Sicilians living innocent, hopeful lives. Robb succeeds in not sentimentalising or patronising those who make Sicily what it is. It is entirely possible that the events unpacked in Midnight in Sicily will never be fully explained or understood. But Robb must have been on to something, as he reveals in the postscript that a fellow Aussie had visited the London and Sydney offices of his publisher, warning that imprisoned mafioso Nitto Santapaola, a journalist and Carabinieri killer, was unhappy with Robb’s book.

This attempt at intimidation is, of course, characteristic. Non-Italians can be glad that all we have to do is read about it. What we can also read about, thankfully, is Sicily, the south, and its inhabitants, from the foreign, admiring eyes of a writer who can aptly guide us through the light and the dark of the Mezzo. Robb reminds us that for every Andreotti, there’s a Letizia Battaglia.

Review of Midnight in Sicily (1996) by Peter Robb. Quote taken from p. 57 of the 2015 Vintage edition.

Jake Plenderleith

Writer and editor, passionate about Rome.

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