"Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic," by Alexander Stille. 467 pages. New York: Pantheon. $27.50
Alexander Stille's history does what history should: it tells a story that makes sense of what occurred in a specific place during a period of time. The subject is Italy during the years between the end of World War II and the dissolution of the Cold War. These two events, like bookends in time, embrace a period of unprecedented prosperity as Italy grew into the fifth industrial power in the world. But also during that time the political class permitted a regional corruption, an aberration long dismissed as a folkloric predilection of Sicilians, to spread its poison from one end of the nation to the other. Why? The Mafia delivered votes.
The Mafia, Camorra, 'Ndran-gheta, Cosa Nostra, whatever the regional nomenclature, was remarkable for several reasons: first and foremost, because it was invisible. Many Italians declined to believe it even existed, not as an archaic rural cabal, much less as a modern criminal army. They denied the terror of the Mafia wars, the degradation of public life whereever it held sway; the proliferation of "excellent cadavers," as its more eminent victims were known. Full awareness of its malignant power came only as the unholy pact between the Christian Democratic Party and the crime syndicates, forged after World War II, became apparent in the 1990s.
Italy was founded on a myth of heroes: Aeneas came there. But by 1948, beaten in a war its fascist leaders were too vainglorious and stupid to avoid, most of the heroes seemed to have departed. But not all. For this book is also a tale of two heroes: Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, magistrates in the Palermo prosecutor's office. They employed new investigative techniques against the Mafia. They defeated the protective code of silence, omerta, by getting mafiosi to testify. They internationalized the struggle. Falcone organized the famous Maxi-Trial of Palermo in which more than 500 mafiosi were prosecuted, most convicted.
The careers of the two Sicilians - the diffident Falcone, the warm, humane Borsellino - were long, very public, extremely successful. They were friends. They dwelled in bulletproof houses. They fought the Mafia and the Mafia's protectors in government. They became national icons and lived dangerous lives until, one after the other, they were annihilated by Mafia bombs. But by then they had planted in the minds of the Italian people the desire to cure the sickness in their polity.
In part the Italian state gained the will to act from the murders of Falcone and Borsellino. But it was also moved by motives of self preservation, as it had been in the 1970s against the Red Brigades. In the early 1990s, the Mafia began to murder its friends in government who could no longer offer protection because by then everything was changing.
The Cold War had ended and with it the Christian Democrats' political legitimacy as a shield against the communists. The bribery prosecutions in Milan had begun: Politicians who had ruled for nearly 50 years were in flight, under indictment, or expecting to be. And the outside world began to intrude. As the Maastricht Treaty of European Union advanced, Italian President Francesco Cossiga said, following another Mafia murder, "We cannot bring this disgrace into Europe."
Richard O'Mara was The Sun's Foreign Editor for 12 years, and its correspondent in Britain and Brazil. In 1992, he went to Italy to cover the expanding corruption and bribery scandals in Rome and Milan.