Saturday, 26 October 2019

Book review: Midnight in Sicily, Peter Robb (1996)

This magisterial work of creative nonfiction is a kind of history of the Sicilian mafia. The bulk of the book concentrates on what happened in southern Italy in the years since WWII but there are excursions into much older eras although not in ways that provide an equal amount of detail. Probably the biggest mystery the book provokes is what has happened to Robb since 2014, the year the most recent piece of journalism by him appeared in Australia.

To make the book, Robb plugs away diligently at his craft, spending time in Naples and in Palermo (the capital of Sicily), and in Rome, flitting between small, out-of-the-way restaurants and the homes of the famous.

He does a good job and you can learn a lot from reading this book but it goes quite fast at times and people who are mentioned earlier in the text will suddenly pop up again without any contextual information. I had to look things up online a couple of times to get back in the picture.

Robb’s main achievement however is the quality of the writing. He is, simply, a master of style. The suspense, the colour, the detail, the dramatic moments, all of these things pile up in a great, towering, massive thing shaped like a cornucopia or a croque monsieur, although you wonder – as I did in the case of Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’ – how Robb managed to remember so many details in some cases where overheard speech is directly reported.

The book entertains and it informs and that, as the teachers will tell you if you go to journalism school, are the two, complementary, halves of your job. The book has, furthermore, stood the test of time very well. It’s as fresh and relevant now as it was when it was first put on the bookshop shelves. The focus on food is particularly good, and this anticipates trends that would not start to really go mainstream for decades. The book, a bit like a mafia don, has not a hair out of place.

The mafia operates – or it did, at the time the book was being written – something like a state within a state. It has its own laws, its own forms of authority, its own forms of authorised violence. And it was, during the years Robb describes, deeply and intricately involved in the matrix of Italian society especially through Christian Democracy, a centre-right political party, and a politician named Giulio Andreotti who is the main “character” in this saga. He forms a central locus of meaning generation for the whole narrative and even if, to expand on a theme he is interested in, sometimes Robb goes off on a tangent to look at other people, the focus returns to Andreotti eventually. In this way, the book has about it the feel of a work of true crime.

In defence of Italy’s honour, it is important to remember how poor the country was even when the Americans first landed on the shores of Sicily to begin the project of liberating Europe from the scourge of fascism. Many people were desperately poor. But the mafia were preying on (or recruiting) the poorest, and no doubt still are.

Robb is relentless, over a period of years, finding out who did what to whom and how Andreotti was involved, in order to provide a portrait of a country in a permanent state of crisis. Paralysed by fear. The trial that comes at the end of the book concluded in 1999, so that part of the drama was not included in this book. 

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