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Sebastiano Vassalli: Il cigno (The Swan)

Any Italian writer writing a book about the Mafia, even a novel, is taking something of a risk. Vassalli says that he had attacks, both criticism of his work being a hatchet job and not original as well as criticism that his assertions are inaccurate. In particular, as he is a Northerner, he has been attacked for not understanding Sicilian culture. The book is a novelisation of the events surrounding the murder of Emanuele Notarbartolo and the subsequent investigation and trials. At the very beginning of the book, he tells us that the two murderers were found guilty at their first trial but, at a second trial, were found not guilty, due to lack of evidence, as the various witnesses were either dead or had changed their statements. The two men were hailed as heroes in Sicily and congratulations poured in, particularly from the United States. Vassalli clearly does not approve of this.

Emanuele Notarbartolo had been chairman of the Bank of Sicily but had been forced out by Francesco Crispi, then Prime Minister of Italy and a man who, according to Vassalli, while not a member of the Mafia himself, had close links to it. The bank was taken over by crooks, who used it as their personal bank. However, there was now a new italian Prime Minister, the Marchese di Rudini, and he hoped that Emanuele Notarbartolo would drive the crooks out. That is what he was planning to do. The opening chapter shows what they did to stop him, a carefully planned, though not very well executed assassination. Vassalli gives us considerable details of the assassination. After the assassination, the directors of the Bank of Sicily celebrate, as they can now continue with their corruption. Raffaele Palizzolo, a member of the Italian parliament, is a key man here. It is he who gives his name to the book, as his nickname is U Cignu, Sicilian dialect for The Swan. Vassalli has a wonderful chapter on the vulgarities and the scheming of Palizzolo and his associates.

As well as corruption in the banks, the Mafia is organising against the Socialists. The workers were demonstrating in front of the town hall, calling for a lower tax on flour. It is the Mafia, not the workers, who antagonise the police and soldiers and the result is that the police and military shoot at the crowd, killing not only some of the men but some women and children waiting at the side. Many others are arrested, even though they have done nothing but oppose the flour tax. But Vassalli shows both sides and we meet the greedy, snobbish, self-centred Giuseppina Crispi, daughter of Francesco Crispi, who despises Sicily and wants only the bright lights of Rome and Naples.

Filicetta is one of the woman who was present at the demonstration and was wounded but her husband was killed. She is on a wanted list. Life has become so desperate for her that she decides to go and see Raffaele Palizzolo. He does see her but is far more interested in her large breasts than her story but offers to help her His offer of helping her is to make her his mistress. He sets her up in her flat and visits her whenever he wants. When he has to go away for a while, he tells her that, while he is out of town, he must be available to any of his friends who come and she reluctantly agrees. However, when she sees Giuseppe Fontana, the man who she had seen provoking the police and soldiers at the demonstration and who we know is the murderer of Emanuele Notarbartolo, she screams and he leaves.

We know from the very beginning that Fontana and Palizzolo will, finally, be arrested, tried and found guilty but, at a retrial, eleven years after the event, key witness will have died or changed their testimony and the two men will get off and will be hailed as heroes when they return to Sicily, something which Vassalli clearly utterly condemns. Vassalli follows the rather insipid police investigation as well as following the reactions of Palizzolo and Crispi, who both consider themselves victims. Indeed, Crispi was very much involved in Italian reunification and Vassali outlines that part of his life, a well.

This is not Vassalli’s best book. He has a clear agenda and does not hide it. Obviously, we cannot expect him to write like Mario Puzo and show an occasionally sympathetic side to the Mafia – all are uniformly evil in this book and, more or less, get their comeuppance. His story is straightforward, based on historical fact and his own glosses are hardly objective, as his critics have pointed out . Nevertheless, it is an interesting outline of a key event in Sicilian history which non-Italians may not be aware of and is worth reading. However, Leonardo Sciascia is a more interesting novelist on the Mafia, not least because he was Sicilian but very anti-Mafia.

Publishing history

First published 1993 by Einaudi
First English publication by Harvill Press