Bloodshed vs. The Cuckoo Clock

Midnight in Sicily: On Art, Food, History, Travel and la Cosa Nostra by Peter Robb

Midnight in Sicily: On Art, Food, History, Travel and la Cosa Nostra by Peter Robb

Reading “Midnight in Sicily”. It is slow going. Not because the book is not interesting, but because it is too interesting. I feel like I owe myself one blog entry every couple of pages.

[Notes to self: a future device that i would love is a tablet sized, kindle-like thing where i could read a book, highlight passages that i like and type out notes on the side as i read easily. The notes and highlighted sections become bookmarks, search-able, and can be extracted into a draft of an essay that i could edit further if i want. The key word here is “easily”.]

1. The word “Bloodshed”.

“In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” – The Third Man, by Graham Greene

I’ve loved this quote because it is clever. Now i also realized i loved this quote because it is in past tense. “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had…terror, murder, and bloodshed,”  Under the false sense of progress, we could make light of bloodshed and terror when they are in past tense.

Now i’m reading Midnight in Sicily, and i realize that “terror, murder, and bloodshed” is never a past tense in Italy. It is on-going. At least till 1995 when this book seemed to be written.

That knowledge horrifies me. Reading the Greene quote above again, i feel more horror than humor. Substitute the cuckoo clock for Renaissance is not too dear a price to pay if we could do away with bloodshed in present tense.

2. Specialty in Trade

[1982]…in the north of Brazil, Tommasco Buscetta was … in the company of Gaetano Badalamenti. Badalamenti had been the first of the Palermo bosses Riina had defeated. He’d seen the writing on the wall in time and got out before the slaughter and was doing good business running drugs in north and south America. Buscetta too, after seeing the mediation between the Palermo families and the Corleonesi was hopeless, had returned to Brazil tohis own drug business and his wife and family.

This little paragraph on the two ex-mafia bosses from Sicily cracked me up. The specialty of trade seems to stay within a people from certain geography. Wenzhou-er from China is known to be great small business owners, all over the world (Paris, South America, Middle East, you name it). Cantonese are known for their restaurants. And Mafias drug business?

3. The South vs. The North

A political scientist from Harvard called Putnam has found the paths of northern and southern Italy were already diverging nearly a thousand years ago. The feudal kingdom founded in the south by the Norman mercenaries was, like the Byzantine and Arab states before it, a centralized and absolutist state. Administratively, economically, socially the southern regime was very advanced. Its constitution in 1230 included Europe’s first codification of administrative law in seven hundred years. It founded Europe’s first state university in Naples in 1224. It was a multicultural society ante litteram, tolerant in religion, in which Greek, Arabic, Jewish, Latin and Italian vernacular arts flourished together. But wealth in the south came from land, not commerce, and the regime’s efficiency of rule reinforced the social hierarchy. Its very strengths inhibited change, while in the north by the twelfth century Florence, Venice, Bologna, Genoa, Milan had already evolved into a network of communal republics.  They were city states with an active citizenry and a professional public administration. They made their money in finance, trade and commerce and the institutions of modern capitalism had their origins there.

Except the metropolitan style tolerance of religion and diverse culture, this reminds me the contrast between Europe and China. The Northern Italy described here symbolized Europe, while the Southern Italy resembled China almost to the dot.

What’s happening in Sicily and southern Italy at large is probably less an Sicilian or southern Italian character, more a human condition under certain geo and economic condition?