“That’s what those years were like: we kept spreadsheets of death, weapons, and none of us were really expected to uncover anything. Investigative journalism was a figure of speech in Sicily in the early eighties. It was a place where Hammett’s red harvest really was a bumper crop of blood.”
The Four Corners of Palermo from Giuseppe Di Piazza takes us back to Italy of the turbulent 80s and the Second Mafia War. These four tales are narrated by a crime reporter who looks back over his youth, his life, his loves and his coverage of the organized crime beat in Palermo. Dating many beautiful (and some troubled young women), the narrator describes his past when he’d leap onto his Vespa and charge off to get the story behind the latest slaughter. There’s a heady, powerful authenticity to these tales which isn’t too surprising in this fictionalized account from author/journalist Giuseppe Di Piazza. Many of the names here including Judge Falcone, Paolo Borsellino, Rocco Chinnici, and Mario D’Aleo were in the headlines during this period in a series of explosively violent acts. These four retrospective stories, are the tales of people who didn’t make the same headlines, but the haunting stories, nonetheless, left lasting, troubling impressions on the narrator. He’s cognizant of his place in history and that he “was living in a novel by Dashiell Hammett, and that this city wasn’t called Palermo, but Poisonville: a place where everyone died. Always.” With death ever present, the enjoyment of life is crucial, and the narrator admits that he loved many women as an antidote to the environment of death. “We were taking high doses of love and sex to conquer our fears.”
The first story Marinello: A Western involves a young man from a mafia family who breaks the rules by falling in love with a girl “from a family where no one has been combinati, made Mafia.” The young man’s relatives take drastic measures to end the relationship. The second story, is the tale of a beautiful French model Sophie, whose heroin addiction brings too much baggage. The narrator, acknowledges that he suffered from “Lancelot Syndrome,” and decades later struggles with his conscience.
In Vito, the narrator receives an anonymous tip that a man named Vito Carriglio has gone missing along with his three young children. According to the newspaper photographer, the brutish Vito is “dark and evil,” an “ugly customer,” who, wearing a bulletproof vest, had been shot in the legs and arms as a “warning” some months before. But why the warning? The story of Vito takes us once again into the hierarchical world of the mafia. The children’s mother is the daughter of a mob boss, and when she turns to the police to help find her children, she’s “breaking one of the most inviolable taboo’s of the cosa nostra.” The involvement of the police is a subtle message:
An act of contempt towards her husband. If she’d just turned to her family it would have been normal; setting the police after him, after this half a malacarne, is a terrible punishment.
The fourth story, Rosalia, is a dark story of the vicious punishment of a man who crossed the wrong people. The narrator feels a bond with a young girl named Rosalia who asks for his help after her father is murdered. In this city known for bizarre slayings, the discovery of a head on the passenger seat, and the torso in the trunk leaves both the journalist and the police wondering just who the victim, a petty thief named Giovanni Neglia, had managed to piss off.
Laced with regret and painful memories, these stories explore how one man copes with being confronted with constant death and violence in a world where gruesome death, reprisal murders and vendetta are daily realities. Through these four snapshots of life in Palermo in the 80s, there’s the strong sense of living for the moment–a friend made today could be murdered tomorrow. Our crime reporter is a witness to this violence, and occasionally he becomes emotionally involved–hence these four stories which continue to haunt him decades later. The stories convey the sense that these were remarkable times to be a crime reporter and yet these experiences come with a heavy cost. There’s the excitement of jumping onto a Vespa and racing off to see the discovery of a Mafia armory, knowing members of the “Squadra Catturandi. Mafioso hunters,” and there’s the thrill of knowing that you are a witness to history–if only you can survive physically, emotionally, morally….
This deeply philosophical book subtly juxtaposes the reporter’s coping mechanisms, his pursuit of women and drinking, but beneath the surface the tales are replete with explanations of the significance of various staged executions and codes of conduct:
Killing someone from a moving motorcycle means showing respect for your target: it means they’re someone hard to reach and to hit, like the greater amberjack, which is a carnivorous fish. “Incaprettare” a victim, hogtying someone so he chokes himself to death is a very different message: a sign of absolute contempt for a body reduced to a self-strangling mass: even worse, you can arrange for the victim to be found gift-wrapped in this contemptuous manner in a car trunk, left out in the hot sun of a Palermo summer.
Review copy. Translated by Anthony Shugaar