Books: Hoodlums & History

THE MAFIA AND POLITICS by Michele Pantaleone. 255 pages. Cowarcf-Mc-Cann. $5.50.

On July 15, 1943, a U.S. fighter plane flying a yellow banner emblazoned with a black "L" dropped a small nylon bag in the plaza of Villalba, Sicily. The bag was addressed to "Uncle Calo"—Calogero Vizzini, the millionaire chief of Italy's Mafia. In the bag was a gold foulard handkerchief belonging "to Gangster Lucky Luciano—a sign that Lucky wanted his old pals to play paisan to the Yanks. Four days later, when three U.S. tanks rolled into town, Vizzini climbed into one of them, clattered off to direct a joint Mafia-Allied operation, which pincered German and Italian troops in western Sicily. The Allies were so grateful that they generally selected Mafia members to be mayors of occupied towns, even gifted Vizzini with two large trucks. The Mafia used them to transport food in the biggest black-market operation in the South. Withal, the Allies breathed new life and spirit into the 900-year-old Mafia, the world's oldest and most infamous gang of hoodlums.

This is just one of the titillating tales in the most authoritative and complete history of the Mafia that has yet been published. Journalist Pantaleone, 54, Italy's leading expert on the Mafia, used to live in Villalba, in 1943 saw the U.S. plane and met the incoming U.S. tanks. He drew on personal experience as well as parliamentary and court records to write a flamboyant tale of terror, banditry and blood.

Lucky & the Duce. The Mafia's beginnings trace to the 11th century, when the conquering Norman Count Roger I swept in, parceled out the island's hilly uplands to his barons, who in turn enlisted the rowdiest ruffians around into gangs of guards. No one really knows what "Mafia" means, but by the last century all Sicily knew what the Mafia was: a randy band, held together by blood oaths and eerie ritual, whose product was "Protection" and whose sell was never soft. Farmers paid to have their cattle not killed or their wells not poisoned. Lovers paid for the right to a few unharried moments in the moonlight. All the institutions of Sicilian society—church, aristocracy, political parties—either went along with the Mafia or actively participated in it. In one monastery, a monk member of the Mafia slew a district Mafia chief, who also happened to be his father superior.

The Mafia's monopoly of menace might have grown greater forever, but along came a bulkier bully: Benito Mussolini. On his orders, suspected Mafiosi were drenched with brine and whipped, their hair and nails were torn out, their soles were burned. By World War II, the Mafia was practically moribund.

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