Mario Puzo is an author I most likely would have never read. I wouldn’t have read him because even though I am very interested in exploring Italian-American literature and authors I knew he was famous for his “Mafia novels”, The Godfather being his best known. But when I came across his first two novels, The Dark Arena and The Fortunate Pilgrim and saw that they weren’t books about “The Mob” I thought I’d give him a try. Both these novels were excellent. After that, I decided to finally try my hand at The Godfather mainly because I had seen the film over a hundred times. The Godfather - the novel - was a huge disappointment: the writing wasn’t nearly as good as it was in his first two novels, I found the whole tone of it more akin to a drug store rack potboiler than anything else. The story itself was good, however, but the writing, the style came as a huge disappointment, especially after seeing (and comparing it to) the far superior film.
So it was with some trepidation that I bought his 1984 novel The Sicilian in a local bookstore and decided to buy it and read it. Yes, it’s yet another “Mafia Novel” but this one was based on an actual historical event and a real person in post-war Sicilian history - that of the bandit/brigand (depending on your point of view) Salvatore Giuliano. I was already very familiar with Giuliano’s story from various different sources: films, internet articles, Sicilian history books - so I was curious to see how Puzo would handle this story which is a powerful one in real life. Puzo’s fictional interpretation of it (he even spells Giuliano’s name GuiLiano, though I’m not sure why) was interesting in the fact that he found an intriguing narrative arc - somewhat operatic, somewhat "biblical" and very much in the tradition of Balzac and Dostoevsky. The other interesting thing about this novel is that while not a “sequel” to his mega bestseller The Godfather, it is something of a “spinoff”. Yes, the characters of Michael Corleone, Pete Clemenza and even Don Vito Corleone make an appearance but the book focuses more on the story of this “Robin Hood of Sicily” with all its violence, treachery and political intrigue.
The writing is far better than it was in The Godfather as well, more akin to his far superior first two novels. This one ranks up there with them but not quite. There was still a little melodrama and a commercial “potboiler” feel to some of it but then again, Puzo was a commercial, mainstream author. I thought the story was treated very well, told through the eyes of both Giuliano and his nemesis, the powerful Mafia don Croce Malo. It is through this tale of violence that Puzo brilliantly weaves in Sicilian history and how the present action is nothing more than a continuation of more than a thousand years of bloodshed and vendettas. The contrast between the harsh life of the Sicilian peasant, the wealthy (and corrupt) nobles and the equally corrupt and treacherous Catholic Church are also fully on display.
There is almost a “Christ-like” story here, the charismatic and somewhat altruistic Giuliano - who claimed his actions were to free Sicily from both the yoke of the Mafia and that of Rome - and the “Pharisees-like”, all powerful, millennia years old Mafia whose grip on the island’s life was complete and total. There’s even a “Judas-like” betrayal in which Giuliano ultimately meets his fate. While there’s enough action and suspense to keep the reader turning the pages, this novel is definitely worth the read for a glimpse into the darker side of Sicilian life and history alone, which is why I enjoyed this book very much. Not a perfect novel by any stretch of the imagination but a damn good one - far superior to its 1969 predecessor from which it was ultimately spun off from.