Against the sweeping backdrop of western Sicily, in a riveting seven-year quest, Frank Viviano pieces together his own harrowing ancestral history of betrayal and redemption. His take is haunted, from its violent opening to its stunning climax, by an ancient Sicilian proverb, Lu sangu lava lu sangu, "Blood washes blood": the torrent of unforgiving vengeance that flows from an unforgivable offense. Viviano's great-great grandfather was a legendary bandit who traveled the countryside of Sicily by night in the robes of a friar and was known as "the Monk." His brutal murder has remained shrouded in mystery for four generations. Until now. Populated by an extraordinary cast of nineteenth-century Robin Hood brigands and twentieth-century underworld bosses, here is a true-life Godfather, in which past and present finally merge into a single story with a shattering climax that ultimately changes the way the author views his immigrant family's complex legacy -- and himself.
The birthplace of my grandparents, of the bandit Francesco "the Monk" and the blur of generations before him, is a fishing village on the Gulf of Castellammare, twenty-five miles west of Palermo. In the blinding Mediterranean noon, four elderly men play cards under a makeshift canvas awning as I drive slowly through the port. Their eyes closely follow my car, but nobody speaks. In the rearview mirror, after I pass, they are still watching. The harbor caffes are deserted at this hour. A trawler rocks gently on a northern swell. The spring air is ripe with the odors of saltwater, lemon blossom, and wild fennel.
Two years have passed since my grandfather's death when I arrive in Terrasini, almost three since his enigmatic words in a Detroit kitchen. I have a story to sort out, a riddle to unlock. Beyond that, I can't really explain why I've come here, to a village where I know no one and have no past of my own. There is only that riddle with my name on it, a dead man and his killer.
In the mirror, the card players have returned to their game. I park the car and walk out along a concrete wharf, carrying a tourist brochure. From the sea, Terrasini is a cubist jumble of pastel houses set on a cliff above the harbor.
The wharf rests on blocks of amber limestone cut from Monte Palmeto, a bare ridge two miles inland that rises nineteen hundred feet into a jagged mosaic of peak and canyon. Quarrymen, I read, have been sculpting the brow of Palmeto for thirty centuries, since a Bronze Age tribe built their chief city on the outskirts of present-day Terrasini. The limestone blocks in the harbor may be the vestiges of that city, or of the antique Roman settlement Terrasinus, the "land on the Gulf." The village fishermen, who moor their boats to the enormous old stones, insist that they are the ruins of Atlantis.
My grandfather passed his childhood on the Terrasini harborside. The Monk must have watched the shadows flee Monte Palmeto under a noonday sun. I recognize that a setting is unfolding, that the plot and characters of my story are hidden in this landscape.
The rectangular grid of streets immediately above the harbor is the fishermen's quarter, a dozen blocks of net-draped cottages tightly packed onto a knoll behind the chapel of Maria Santissima della Provvidenza, protectoress of seafarers. On a map posted in front of the chapel, the quarter is identified as Contrada Marina, the maritime district, but its residents have always called it "Favarotta," as did my grandparents.
It is an allusion to the secret language that murmurs under the visible surface of Sicilian life, a vocabulary of coded words and symbols riven from a tortured history. The island of Sicily has been sacked by nearly every conqueror to pass through the Mediterranean basin for three thousand years. Ten centuries ago, when the most recent invaders were North African, Arab galleys were moored to the amber harbor stones. "Favarotta" is derived from fawar, Arabic for "fountain"; it refers to a spring of cool water that gushes up from slabs of rose shale where Our Lady of Providence surveys the tuna fleet.
Favarotta occupies the narrow end of an elongated wedge that encloses the village. Its dimensions have barely changed since my grandfather's birth. Twenty-two streets climb the slope toward the base of Monte Palmeto, cut by ten that parallel the gulf shore. The map's focal point, stretching along an east-west axis for a full block between the fishermen's cottages and the rest of the village, is the broad Piazza Duomo, lined by shady ficus trees and the crumbling palazzi of minor nobles. Maria Santissima delle Grazie, the principal church of Terrasini, anchors the piazza's upper end with two bell towers.
Officially, eleven thousand people reside in Terrasini and its outlying countryside in 1995. At noon on the day of my arrival, the face of the village is a sun-washed mask: narrow cobbled streets interspersed with baroque churches and squares, houses shuttered to the meridional heat, a border of seascape and citrus grove. Its soul is the ancestral memory, a dark grotto of whispered names and archaic understandings etched in nearly impenetrable code.
Sicily was familiar to me from periodic assignments dating back to the late seventies, when I'd begun covering organized crime as a wire service reporter. I knew the general history, a few of the local tales, and a lot of what was directly connected to the murder trials and political scandals that brought me to the island on professional business. But I had never spent more than an afternoon in Terrasini.
The idea had materialized gradually in the year after my grandfather's death: I would take up residence in the birthplace of my namesake, a village where three of my grandparents had also been born and the fourth was raised. I would learn who killed the Monk, and why. I would find out what my grandfather's words meant.
For two and a half years I put off this trip and prepared for it at the same time. I had to make a living, I told myself; I couldn't drop everything to chase down a riddle. But I knew, at heart, that it was just a matter of time.
I bought books on Sicily wherever I found them, straightforward tourist guides and obscure academic studies in English, French, and Italian, until I'd accumulated a respectable library. I hoarded vacation days, letting them pile up until I could take off for a couple of months. Then I locked up my office at the San Francisco Chronicle bureau in Paris and headed south across France and the Italian border to Genoa, where I boarded a car ferry for the 750-mile voyage to Palermo. Not precisely my grandfather's voyage in reverse, but a symbolic approximation.
Three hours after I arrived in Terrasini, I checked into a dusty guest house just behind Maria Santissima delle Grazie. My room had a sagging, ornately gilded matrimonial bed, a small wooden desk, and one chair, and a shower whose temperature shifted unpredictably from scalding to ice cold. There was no phone. The windows opened onto a narrow balcony directly under the church towers; their bells struck every fifteen minutes around the clock, in great baritone peals that rattled the window frames. Four strokes at 4:00 P.M. One at each quarter hour, two at the half hour, three at three quarters.
The bell towers overlooked the western turn of Terrasini's passeggiata, the evening promenade in the piazza. By unspoken consensus, teenagers ruled it for two hours, starting at five. They strutted in unruly knots, clusters of boys shouting insults at each other and ogling clusters of girls. At the stroke of seven, the teenagers promptly disappeared and were replaced by young families and older strollers, the men still with men and the women with women, gliding arm-in-arm past the church and the piazza's five caffes and three social clubs.
The protocol was rigid. The first time I joined the passeggiata, swept along on a teenaged wave as the bells rang six, I noticed that the men sipping amaro outside of the Circolo Contadino and Di Maggio's Caffe remained pinned to their chairs. An hour later, one of the Di Maggio clients rose from his seat, introduced himself in English, and walked me through several circuits of the piazza, explaining the rules. He had spent seventeen years in Michigan and New York, learning the ways of life in the United States through trial and error, and felt sorry for me. His name was Michele Cortese, but he said he'd be grateful if I called him Mike.
"Reminds me of America," he explained.
Mike was to become my closest friend in Terrasini, my guide. I needed both. I was a stranger in the village, with a trunk full of books and a fuzzy agenda.
The most simple biographical facts were missing when I began the search for the Monk. I knew that he had had at least two sons, my great-grandfather Giuseppe and his elder brother. But I had no idea where our family had lived in Terrasini, no idea when the first Francesco had married, no idea if there had been other children.
Indeed, I had no idea when he was born or when he had died -- only that the murder occurred after Giuseppe was baptized in 1864, with his father in attendance. And I only knew that because the baptismal certificate from Maria Santissima delle Grazie lay amid the yellowed documents that Grandma Angelina had hidden inside the furniture upholstery during the early stages of her dementia. We found it after her death in 1984, along with a cache of unpaid bills from J. L. Hudson's Department Store and the sheet music from love songs she played on the piano.
My grandfather took the answers I sought to the grave, leaving me with an improbable hope that the Monk and his killer had not been forgotten on the Gulf of Castellammare.
So I took a step back and began the way a reporter should have, surveying the ground, taking notes, asking more questions. The who, where, when, and why that might bring a riddle closer to a coherent account, to a killing and its motivation.
The history was fresher in Sicily, in place if not time. That was clear from my first acquisition in Terrasini, a telephone directory. The reporter's most basic tool. Sixty-three family names were listed in its pages. They were, I would soon find, the same names that had filled the village's civil ledgers in 1850. There could hardly be a corner of Europe where the pace of change was more lethargic. The wealth of direct connections to the past, traced by sixty-three unbroken family lines, bore its enormous weight on every conversation.
Sicily, in this regard, was the antithesis of America. Ancestral memory was inescapable here.
Two days after I moved into the guest house, I presented myself at the Palazzo La Grua, an austere eighteenth-century baronial mansion that now served as Terrasini's town hall. My credentials were a note of introduction from Mike, with whom I'd had dinner the evening before, and the 1864 baptismal certificate of Giuseppe Viviano.
The research ought to have been straightforward: assembling a complete family tree from the municipal records and filling in the biography of the first Francesco, the Monk. Once I knew the dates of his birth and death, I could undertake the much more complicated investigation of his checkered life, in the pages of police and court transcripts at the state archive in Palermo, and begin tracking down the records of Domenico Valenti.
"In principle, no problem," the village registrar told me.
She was Marianna Trappeto, a former Detroiter in her mid-thirties. Like Mike, she had spent many years in America and was anxious to help.
"But in practice," she added, "there is a certain obstacle."
In principle, the birth, marriage, and death of every Terrasini native had been inscribed in the civil ledgers by Marianna and her predecessors for four centuries. In practice, the bare-bones records annex on the opposite side of the town hall square, Piazza Municipale, held almost no death or marriage ledgers from before 1890, a trail that would lead me barely beyond my grandfather's departure for America. The oldest birth records in the annex were from the 1850s, the last stumbling decade of the Spanish and Bourbon kingdoms that ruled Sicily for six centuries.
The rest of the ledgers had not been lost, Marianna assured me. "They are packed in boxes somewhere...."
She promised she would try to find out more, and walked me across the piazza to the annex. "Tanti auguri," she said, parting with an expression that translated as "good luck" and implied that I'd need it.
The accessible records were stored in the back room of the annex, in two open bookcases. On the far wall, a photocopy machine was buried under a pile of newspapers and magazines, next to the desk of a filing clerk in a rumpled cotton suit who was finishing up a pack of Marlboros as he carefully studied the day's Gazzetta dello Sport. The phone rang, stopped, and then rang again. He ignored it, offered me a chair, and opened a new pack of cigarettes, tossing the Gazzetta onto the pile.
"For the moment, I'm afraid, this doesn't work," he said, pointing a nicotine-stained finger toward the buried photocopier and shrugging his shoulders. It didn't work today (or any other day over the next year), and I'd have to transcribe whatever material I found useful into a notebook. The ledgers were not allowed to leave the room.
After our introduction, the clerk shook my hand with businesslike formality each morning at my arrival and each evening at my departure, and nodded during the passeggiata. But for weeks we never exchanged another word.
The ledgers, huge leather-bound volumes in an atlas-sized format, were another exercise in the distinction between principle and practice. In principle, they were organized chronologically, opening with the events of January and closing with December's entries and an alphabetical index of the ledger's infants, newlyweds, or deceased. In practice, the index pages were often torn out or shredded beyond recognition because the protective leather covers had fallen off.
The entries themselves were frequently rendered indecipherable by a nineteenth-century registrar's sloppy hand or by a pen that had spewed ink blots over the ledgers. In a single volume, there might be three or four alternate spellings of a family name: Valente, Walenti, Valenti, Vallenti. The record -- which noted who witnessed a birth, marriage, or death, as well as the date and site of the event and the immediate lineage of the subject -- might be written in formal Italian or a phoneticized rendition of Sicilian dialect, depending on the education of the registrar.
Some of the archive officials had been quite precise in their descriptions. The 1900 birth record of my maternal grandmother, Caterina Cammarata, identified her father as "blacksmith, Via Santa Rosalia, four children." Others were satisfied with a no-frills class label. On his son Giuseppe's record, Francesco the Monk was simply described as "viddanu," the dialect term for a peasant. Many records noted only the names of bridegrooms in the marriage indexes and omitted the ages of mothers from birth certificates.
A misstep and I could wander into a genealogical maze, confronted at every turn by my own name. There was nothing remarkable in village Sicily about the existence of dozens of Francesco Paolo Vivianos in the same generation. "One tenth of the men in Terrasini are named Viviano, and one fourth of the Viviano men are named Francesco Paolo," Marianna Trappeto had declared, when I told her I was looking for information about my namesake.
Her hands were held close to her sides with palms turned upward, a gesture that conveys the fruitlessness of a proposed task and the folly of anyone who might undertake it.
It was the code. Sicilian parents name their first son after his paternal grandfather and their second after his maternal grandfather, just as a first daughter takes the name of her paternal grandmother and a second that of her mother's mother. In anthropological jargon, the tradition is referred to as "pappanomy," and Sicily is its textbook example. Only with a third son or third daughter is invention allowed to play a role.
This is more than custom; it has the force of fixed, immutable law. To violate it is to break ranks with centuries of ancestors. A name in Sicily is at the existential heart of identity: Ano's final thought in the desert, clung to as though it were life itself.
In my own family, there were three Frank Pauls and five Angelas on my father's side, four Salvatores on my mother's. My grandparents had nine children in America. Seven of the nine had found spouses in New York or Detroit who were also children of Terrasini immigrants, and dutifully baptized a new generation of Francescos, Angelas, and Salvatores.
As the first-born grandson in my generation, there had been no doubt about what my name would be. From the moment that a boy was presented to my groggy mother in the delivery room of Detroit's Providence Hospital in 1947, the family had automatically referred to me as "Franky." But as far as Grandma Angelina was concerned, my timing bespoke a miracle. For I had chosen in the womb itself, she declared, to make my appearance on December 3, which was nothing less than the feast day of my saint, San Francesco -- and her own birthday. "Figghiu miu, miraculu!"
It was a wonder the label didn't stick to me. Acquired nicknames, known in dialect as 'nciuria, are supplied for nearly every Sicilian; had I been born in Terrasini, I would almost certainly have struggled through childhood nicknamed "the miracle."
In Sicily's more remote villages, there is no point in referring to someone by a baptismal first name; only the local priest recognizes it. More effective is to ask after the likes of Ammazza-Mugghieri, Ninfa la Rossa, Cicciu Cinque Mille, or Facci-Lurdda: "Wife-Killer," "Red Nymph," "Cicciu Five-Thousand," or "Dirty Face." Poor Signore Wife-Killer, the barkeep of a caffe, was a Terrasini widower who had outlived several mates. Ninfa la Rossa, my great-grandmother, was a fanatically devoted Catholic, "red" with religious fervor. But the 'nciuria could also be ironic. Dirty Face was a man known for his excessive fastidiousness. As for Cicciu Five Thousand, he earned his name in the Detroit numbers racket, before returning to Sicily. Cicciu is a Sicilian diminutive for Francesco.
The word 'nciuria itself is derived from the Italian ingiuria, which translates as "insult," but its force in Sicilian dialect is not usually pejorative and its function is far more complicated. On the one hand, it is a practical way of distinguishing between the scores of identically named men and women in a family or town. Among the nineteenth-century plethora of Francesco Paolo Vivianos, the invention and use of "lu Monacu" was a necessary device, as well as a suggestive riddle. r
When acquired in one's childhood, an 'nciuria can also carry the weight of a prophecy or a definition of character. Saro D'Anna, a friend of Mike's in Terrasini, had been dubbed Aceddu, "the Bird," in his infancy; at thirty, he was light in his movements and airy in manner -- visibly birdlike, a fulfillment of the 'nciuria that his fellow villagers regarded as entirely predictable. Just as predictable, in their view, was the fact that he had married a talkative young woman known universally as Caccarazza, "Magpie."
Yet as much as the 'nciuria prevails in everyday usage, it never appears in a church or municipal record. The result is the archival maze that swallowed me in Terrasini, the endless march of identical names. There were hundreds of birth records for infant boys baptized Francesco Paolo Viviano in the municipal archives, a mind-numbing prospect. But I would know, more often than not, if I was on the wrong track in my research when a first son with that name did not lead back to a paternal namesake in exactly two pappanomic generations.
In principle, it ought to have worked. I buckled down to the search.
Nicholas Pileggi New York Times bestselling author of Wiseguy and Casino A brilliant personal narrative that captures the history and customs of the Sicilian society which spawned The Godfather. I can't recommend it highly enough.
Time International A beguiling, honest tale...A nuanced story full of the guts of human frailty -- betrayal, revenge, frustration, poverty, pain, despair.
Variety An Italian Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.