You know that you’ve got an interesting book on your hands when you read that there is no publisher in Italy that will touch it and when you also become aware of the unpleasant threats that were made against the Australian and British publishers, who to their credit didn’t back down. But that was over 20 years ago now and as the author himself said in 2007, the British edition of Midnight in Sicily continues to do rather well in Italian bookshops; I was happy to contribute to that success with my purchase of this book in Italy.
Midnight in Italy is by now quite a well known book and I've noticed it recommended from time to time in various places, but the first time I saw it mentioned was about 8 years ago when reading chef Giorgio Locatelli’s book on Sicilian food. Locatelli wrote that being from Lombardy, living and working in London and then finding himself spending August every year in Porto Palo near Menfi, he needed to understand and learn about Sicily, feeling as foreign as the rest of us, and this is one of the books he turned to for his Sicilian education. Perhaps that’s all the recommendation needed because if this book was good enough to explain a part of Italy to an Italian then what higher praise is there than that.
Peter Robb, the author, has a very interesting and unconventional biography for a writer, seemingly always drawn to slightly sinister and dangerous places and his years in Naples and Sicily between 1978 and 1995 proved to be exactly that.
Those years just happened to coincide with the period of the mafia wars described by Alexander Stille in his riveting book ‘Excellent Cadavers’ and Robb was a witness to it all. As was Alexander Stille in fact as he too spent most of this same period living in Italy. But this book is about much more than just the mafia, even though Robb has a great deal to say about cosa nostra and provides detailed and damning evidence of Andreotti’s culpability in permitting the mafia’s tentacles to penetrate so deeply into all levels of the Italian State.
But Robb is just as curious and intrigued by the historical and cultural legacy left behind by all the invaders and occupiers of this island over many centuries, and descriptions and discussions of Sicilian traditions and food play a prominent role throughout the book.
There was even a court case that Robb describes where the testimony of an unfortunate child was dismissed on the grounds that her memory was unreliable based on her statement that her assailant had eaten several cannoli before the assault. Impossible said the judge, no-one eats cannoli in August because the ricotta would spoil too quickly in the heat. Justice duly dispensed according to the typical food habits of Sicilians. Absurd of course to non-Sicilians, or at least to non-Italians, but such is the importance given to food traditions in Sicily.
Robb also devotes quite a few pages to more recent Sicilian culture in the form of the writer Leonardo Sciascia and the artist Renato Guttuso, both of whom he talks about in some detail, especially Sciascia's dangerously equivocal and mistakenly nostalgic view of the mafia in his later years. He also makes a point of visiting and describing their respective home towns of Racalmuto and Bagheria to understand the environment in which they grew up and its influence upon them.
His frank and damning description of both places and the depressing litany of other locations permanently disfigured by the misuse of State money over the decades, which was funneled into shoddy mafia controlled construction projects, will have you quickly making notes to avoid some of these places visited by Robb. Not only did the mafia destroy lives but it left a permanent scar on Sicily with the criminal destruction of many historic buildings and their fraudulent replacement with awful looking and shoddily constructed apartment blocks.
If you’ve been to the Vucciria food market in Palermo (above photos) you’ll recognize and appreciate his description of it in the very first chapter and he talks at length elsewhere in the book about gelato, couscous and the ritual of coffee in Naples and the origins of dried pasta. Peter Robb must be a very interesting character to meet in person because he acquired some equally interesting friends in both Naples and Sicily, many of them it seems only one or two steps removed from the unsavory people in the news that he was writing about, and some of them not even one step removed, like the mafioso lawyer in Naples whose children required English lessons from Robb.
One notable person who took him into her confidence was the Sicilian photographer, Letizia Battaglia, now 86 years old and quite famous, but busy earning her fame through hard work when the author met her 30 years ago. In fact one of her photographs, casually taken as an ordinary newspaper photographer in 1979 when covering Prime Minister Andreotti’s very public visit to Palermo, became a central part of Andreotti’s trial 16 years later.
Her photo was never in fact published at the time by the newspaper because the visit was of little importance but 16 years later everyone in the photograph was dead (none of them from natural causes) apart from Andreotti of course, and her photograph then became the only proof of who Andreotti had greeted like an old friend on his arrival that evening at a political rally at the hotel Zagarella, and who was by his side at dinner.
Such was the importance of this photograph that in in 1993 a squad of Carabineri descended on her studio and took away all her negatives in order to find it. This is just one of several interesting and well researched stories in the book because Robb met and befriended many other people who were witnesses to the events that took place over these years that he spent in southern Italy.
Before Robb finally left Sicily (and I get the sense that he felt he had perhaps overstayed his welcome) he also managed to have lunch with Leoluca Orlando, the mayor of Palermo, as well as interview the chief prosecutors in the first trial of Andreotti in Palermo. He describes those encounters in the final chapter.
I think Giorgio Locatelli was correct in giving Robb credit for helping him understand Sicily and he could have added Naples too, because it's a fascinating 320 page book.