Story of Two Heroes Spotlights Anti-Mafia Fight in Italy


By Alexander Stille

Pantheon, 467 pp., $27.50

'Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic'' is a timely and important book about Italy's tormented anti-Mafia struggle.

It is timely because it sets the stage for this fall's trial of seven-time Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti on charges of collaborating with Cosa Nostra and meeting with the Sicilian Mafia's highest leaders.

It is important because it introduces to English-speaking readers investigating magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, whose heroic commitment to justice culminated in their brutal 1992 assassinations.

Falcone penetrated more deeply into the Mafia mentality than any outsider had ever done. His work led to the mid-1980s maxi-trial of mafiosi, which ended in the unprecedented conviction of 344 people.

For Falcone, the decision of high-level mafioso Tommaso Buscetta to leave Cosa Nostra and collaborate with justice was a boon. ''We understood one another without having to speak,'' Mr. Buscetta says in the book. Buscetta explained to Falcone that the organization was Cosa Nostra, not the Mafia, and that its members were ''men of honor,'' not mafiosi. Cosa Nostra was separate from the American Mafia and governed by a commission, he continued, which made important decisions regarding the organization. He named names. His testimony was critical to the Palermo anti-Mafia judicial pool's case at the maxi-trial.

Throughout ''Excellent Cadavers,'' which is the Sicilian term for important figures killed by the Mafia, Alexander Stille shows how Falcone and Borsellino labored on heroically, despite harassment by the people of Palermo, the press, politicians, and even other judges.

After the maxi-trial, Falcone was passed over to lead the Palermo judicial pool in favor of a judge who was appointed by the traditional criterion of seniority even though he had no anti-Mafia experience. It was the beginning of the end for Falcone, who felt isolated. A second shock came one day in 1989, when a bodyguard found an extremely sophisticated bomb near the judge's beach house in time to whisk him away to safety.

In 1991 Falcone, worn out from opposition in Palermo, agreed to go to Rome to establish a national anti-Mafia investigative force. Falcone's friends were skeptical that any good would come of it, but the judge achieved notable success.

On May 23, 1992, Falcone returned to visit Palermo. As he drove from the airport to the city, a bomb planted by the Mafia ripped apart the highway, killing Falcone, his wife, and three bodyguards. It was a tragedy that seared the national consciousness.

Thousands of Palermo citizens, especially young people, protested in public, something that would have been unimaginable before. Even some mafiosi were disgusted. Borsellino, at first shocked into inactivity by the killing, emerged in a burst of judicial energy, sensing his own time was short. On July 19, 1992, Borsellino and five of his bodyguards were assassinated in a car bombing outside his mother's Palermo home.

The collective impact of these deaths -- following the murders of so many other politicians, judges, and policemen in Palermo, as Stille meticulously documents -- jolted the nation into action. Various long-sought, high-level mafiosi were arrested, including Cosa Nostra's supreme leader, Salvatore Riina.

While Falcone and Borsellino were combating Cosa Nostra, Sicilian politician Salvatore Lima was rising, with Mafia backing, from Palermo mayor to European Parliament deputy. Stille shows how Lima allied himself with Mr. Andreotti in 1968 and how ex-mafiosi allege that Andreotti met with Mr. Riina and others to arrange favors for the Mafia in exchange for votes.

When numerous sentences from the maxi-trial were upheld by Italy's high court, Cosa Nostra gunned down Lima for his failure to guarantee the organization's interests in gaining the release of some of its prisoners.

Although the book succeeds as a law-enforcement story, Stille never quite gets inside the Sicilian mentality, which is the key to understanding Cosa Nostra.

''In the mental map of a mafioso ... Sicily is the center of the world,'' wrote judge Luca Pistorelli in an illuminating article in the Italian-language Limes journal last year. ''He considers himself first of all a Sicilian who believes in God and loves his land, its traditions, its unwritten codes. Sicilianness is the essential and indestructible component of the mentality of every Cosa Nostra member, from the newest initiate to the boss of bosses.''

Falcone and many anti-Mafia crusaders say that fighting Cosa Nostra means fighting something in the Sicilian soul.

''Excellent Cadavers'' is a brilliantly told, though at times rather complicated, story of the fits and starts of the Italian government's anti-Mafia struggle and the demise of the post-war Italian republic, brought about by the stench of Mafia and political corruption. A cast of characters would have been useful.

It is especially weak on events after the Falcone and Borsellino assassinations. For example, Stille never mentions that, in 1993, 3 out of 4 people in Palermo voted for anti-Mafia mayoral candidate Leoluca Orlando. Stille -- along with many Italians -- regards Mr. Orlando as a controversial figure, but this hardly justifies passing over his massive victory in the city's first direct mayoral election.

Stille underplays how the Mafia affects the everyday lives of Sicilians and how many Sicilians have rebelled against Cosa Nostra since 1992 and are working to create a new way of thinking in Sicily.

Despite these flaws, this book is well worth reading. The work and character of Falcone and Borsellino are an inspiration. Their assassinations should leave no reader untouched.

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