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The 1980s were the period of what has been called the Second Mafia War, in which the Corleonese clan fought to establish hegemony over rival Mafia families and the Italian state itself. It was a time of outrageous attacks on authority (a massacre in broad daylight of a number of carabinieri on a freeway was especially notable) and a constant stream of murders of varying degrees of theatrical brutality. Nor did this all take place in obscure corners of underground Palermo. As Di Piazza recalls, "Everyone lived together. Good people and bad. Victims and killers. Daughters of respectable civil servants and sons of blood-thirsty Mafiosi. A borderline had never been drawn, in Palermo."
It was also the time when Giuseppe Di Piazza was a young journalist, one likely to be called out at any moment, his pockets stuffed with phone tokens, to report on the latest atrocity. This is the experience that forms the foundation of his first work of fiction, THE FOUR CORNERS OF PALERMO. Not quite a novel, it offers the stories of four different characters whose lives are impacted one way or another by the violence around them. A fifth character is the narrator himself, a crime reporter at the beginning of his career, whose experience of the sheer mayhem on which he is reporting is shaping his own development.
The title refers to a famous Palermo landmark, the Piazza Vigliena, which is known generally as the Quattro Canti - the Four Corners, remarkable for its four impressive Baroque buildings representing, among other things, the four seasons. Whether the reference is ironic is impossible to say, but the contrast between the glorious architecture of the past and the sordid criminality of the times Di Piazza describes is impossible to overlook.
The four stories speak of crimes and their consequences that grow increasingly horrifying from one to the next. The first, "Marinello: A Western," tells of a Mafioso who has, in the Sicilian phrase, gone mouldy, that is, defected from the ranks. He and his fiancée, a girl of a respectable family, must flee far away, to somewhere "where no one speaks Sicilian." They might be able to do it, but their act of defiance will be met with the sort of retaliation that the Mafia knows well how to employ. The second of the set, "Sophie: A Love Story," deals less with the Mafia itself than with the drugs that were at the heart of the Mafia wars. But even more, it concerns the young narrator, who is, incidentally, never named, and with his own failure to meet a moral test, a failure that he still regrets thirty years later. The third tale, "Vito: A Marriage," details the terrible revenge that the title character takes on his wife, daughter of a mob boss, Giuseppe Savasta, aka "Tempesta," and her family. He has been firmly put in his place by Savasta for sins against the Mafia code of behaviour, most particularly for hitting his wife, and his pride is so wounded that he lashes back in a way that sadly has become only too familiar in families that have no relation to the Mafia. In the last story, "Rosalia: A Daughter," the narrator, who up to now has largely been an observer striving for detachment from the daily horrors of the local bloodbath, finally becomes actively engaged in trying to help the daughter of a man who has been beheaded and left as a terrible message. Rosalia needs to know why, not who, has done this thing, because "taking a father's head off takes the children's dignity with it." He does find out, but whether Rosalia will survive the knowledge is uncertain.
The narrator is a young man who is trying to reach maturity in circumstances that should lead only to cynicism or despair. He tries to maintain some degree of balance by having sex with as many beautiful young women as he can. As a strategy, it has its limitations, as in general none of these women ever seem particularly real, even to the narrator. He also finds solace in a way that few American young men might - he cooks, and what he cooks sounds very good indeed. Of course, one would have to have access to superb Sicilian vegetables to reproduce his pastas, but it is possible to believe that they could restore one's soul. And of course, there is his cat, Cicova, who, he says, at times is the only creature he can trust. And it is Cicova who has the last word.
Antony Sugaar has done an excellent job with what must have been a very difficult text to translate, given that it is studded with Sicilian expressions that have no real equivalent in standard Italian, let alone English.
After all the brutality and all the blood, it would hardly be surprising if the young man had turned his back on Palermo and all that it represents. He tells us at one point that he has not lived there for thirty years, but he still feels a tie to the place and its light and smell of sea water. In a note at the end concerning the Quattro Canti, Di Piazza writes that in Palermo, a canto is a corner. "But, of course a canto in Italian is also a song, or a section of an epic poem....these four cantos form a fifth canto, invisible to the eye but unmistakable to all who have left Palermo: il cantodell'assenza - the canto of absence."
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, October 2014
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Contact: Yvonne Klein (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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