The Interview: Bookbag Talks To John Dickie

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To John Dickie


Summary: Here at Bookbag we were impressed by Professor John Dickie's latest book about the Italian mafias - this time looking at their history. The chance to chat to him was an offer we couldn't refuse.
Date: 24 June 2011
Interviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee

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Here at Bookbag we were impressed by Professor John Dickie's latest book about the Italian mafias - this time looking at their history. The chance to chat to him was an offer we couldn't refuse.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

John Dickie: I don't have to close my eyes; I see them every day on the Northern Line. There's a kind of heroism involved in standing with a book in one hand and the support rail in the other as the train rattles into London. I wanted to write something that distilled serious academic research on a subject I'm passionate about into a form that would make commuters miss their stop.

When I'm writing I have my dad at the back of my mind too. He's 89 now, still very sharp. He's very bright bloke who left school when he was 15. World War II was his university. He reads a fair bit, but is quite rightly intolerant of too much literary nonsense: too many names to remember, pretentiousness, obscurity. I suppose writing books like Cosa Nostra and Blood Brotherhoods is my way of explaining to him what I do every day at university.

  • BB: You seem to be drawn to the mafias. Your first book, Cosa Nostra, turned you into a best-selling author and you've now revisited the subject with a history of Cosa Nostra, Camorra and 'ndrangheta. Why do they interest you so much? What was the initial 'hook' which drew you in?

JD: There were lots of hooks. First of all, it's very exciting for a historian to research a subject that is so relevant, and even urgent. In Sicily, Campania and Calabria (the homes, respectively, of the mafia, the camorra and the 'ndrangheta) organized crime is not just a literary and cinematic genre; it is a permanent emergency.

Then there are more visceral reasons. I've always loved mafia movies, The Godfather trilogy etc, even though they are factually inaccurate on many, many counts, and —like almost everything on the mafia produced in the USA — utterly cheesy when they go anywhere near Italy. But I've never been all that pious about the Hollywood version of the mafia. It has never worried me all that much that Hollywood is morally ambiguous and partly glamourizes the mafia. If people enjoy the gangster movie genre, it doesn't mean that they are so stupid that they will tolerate mafiosi creaming off protection money from their business, bringing drugs into their neighbourhood, or cornering building contracts from their local council. The United States may have produced The Godfather, but it also produced the RICO laws. The US has done a much better job, historically, of repressing mafia crime than has Italy, where the cinema on the mafia tends to be much more serious — and has many fewer fans. (I'm thinking of a film like I cento passi.)

Then there's the fact that the Sicilian mafia has always been on my academic radar. In my PhD thesis I wrote about Leopoldo Franchetti, who was one of the first people to study what he called the 'violence industry' in the 1870s. And I knew that there was a huge body of important research about organized crime in Italy, not to mention a wealth of powerful stories, that hardly anyone beyond Italy knew.

Mix those three things together and you get Cosa Nostra and Blood Brotherhoods. I wanted to show that writing about the mafia could shed the moral ambiguity without losing the excitement. That it could venture into Italy without becoming crass. That it could incorporate genuine academic research without sacrificing readability. In short, the bet I made was that people's understandable fascination with the obscure world of criminal sects could be switched on by a good, informative book, and not the usual tired tales of guys with silly nicknames whacking one another.

  • BB: How do you feel about the organisations and their members? I ask this because I've seen them depicted in fiction (and occasionally in non-fiction) as everything from thuggish criminals, through bumbling idiots to reasonable people with whom you could get along quite well, despite some of their more unfortunate habits. I've even read about some of their charitable endeavours. Where's the truth?

JD: Every now and then, an Italian crime boss will pose as a defender of the community by shooting a petty thief or passing some cash to a widow. But these are no more than propaganda gestures. Mafiosi, camorristi, and 'ndranghetisti are evil. But they cannot be dismissed as stupid thugs, as people outside Italy often do. The organisations they are part of are very clever ones — products of a kind of evolutionary process within what, in Blood Brotherhoods, I call Italy's 'criminal ecosystem'. There are reasons why they have been in business for well over a century. Both Cosa Nostra and Blood Brotherhoods articulate my gut disbelief that this kind of thing has gone on for so long. Yet they are also my way of giving voice outside Italy to a loathing of the mafias and everything they do that you will find in all decent people from the 'areas of high mafia density' (to use the Italian jargon).

  • BB: Given the secrecy which surrounds the organisations and their rather direct methods of dealing with problems have you ever felt that your interest has brought you into danger?

JD: I get asked that question a lot, and it always makes me uneasy. I wrote about it in a piece for The Independent. Perhaps the best way to explain is to point people towards that article. (Although keep in mind that I did not write the silly titles.)

  • BB: 'Blood Brotherhoods' looks at the history of the three mafias up to the middle of the twentieth century and I was particularly struck by your quote from Corrado Alvaro: The blackest despair that can take hold of any society is the fear that living honestly is futile. Has the situation improved in the half century (and more) since the end of your book or do you see the influence of the mafias spreading or declining?

JD: There are many points in Italian history where Italians would have had every right to give in to Alvaro's 'blackest despair' — moments when the power of organized crime, and corruption more generally, were so deeply rooted and arrogant that it could easily seem like an exercise in self-harm to resist. And yet there has always been resistance. The heroes of Cosa Nostra and Blood Brotherhoods are people — like the amazing policeman Ermanno Sangiorgi — who stood up against the criminal regime.

But things have changed recently. We have moved from the profoundly bleak scenario of the 1980s and early 1990s, when Sicily and Southern Italy were at serious risk of becoming a kind of narco-state appended to the bottom of Europe, to a situation where it is now possible to be very cautiously optimistic. But then that's a story I'm going to tell in the sequel to Blood Brotherhoods, which picks up from the fall of Fascism and comes right up to the present day.

  • BB: I was particularly taken with the style of your writing – or rather with the unusual mix of scholarly research and accessible delivery to the reader. I know that you're a Professor of Italian Studies, so the scholarly research comes as no surprise, but was it difficult to write in such a way that your books appeal to the general reader?

JD: It's difficult and pleasurable at the same time. I just have to keep asking myself, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, 'Am I boring people?' It's one thing to write a dull page or two in a book for academics like me, who read for a living. But you've got absolutely no right to do it when you're writing for those people on the Northern Line who have to carve out every minute of reading time the demands of job, kids, housework, etc.

  • BB: Blood Brotherhoods obviously required extensive research and the writing suggests that the book was crafted rather than simply written. How difficult was it to juggle your academic workload with writing the book?

JD: I'm hugely flattered that you've used the word 'crafted'. A great deal of time and effort went into the 'architecture' of Blood Brotherhoods: it was complicated weaving the three mafias into a single narrative. As far as time to research and write was concerned, I was very lucky in that I won a Research Fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust that freed me up from my teaching commitments for two years. The Leverhulme get a big thank-you in the acknowledgements.

  • BB: Where do you go on holiday?

JD: South Africa. My wife, the novelist Sarah Penny, is from Cape Town and she insists on going back every winter. Not surprisingly, I don't put up much resistance. Our kids get to see their relatives, and they feel very much at home there now. My little boy Elliot even went to a South African school for a while.

  • BB: You've got one wish. What's it to be?

JD: That my wife and kids stay safe, healthy and happy.

  • BB: What's next for John Dickie?

JD: I'm off to Australia in early July to launch Blood Brotherhoods. I've never been before and I can't wait. Then it's back to the UK to pick up the threads of the sequel, which will be called Mafia Republic.

  • BB: We're looking forward to reading Mafia Republic, John and thank you for talking to Bookbag.

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