Wednesday, April 12, 2006
"Leave the gun. Take the cannolis..."
Quite a shocker of a news sensation in Italy - at long, long last, the arrest of a criminal who... looks at least a little like his police photofit.
Bernardo Provenzano, capo di tutti capo, fugitive from justice for almost 43 years, has finally been caught and allowing many to proclaim the downfall of "the last Godfather" ("... since the last 'Last Godfather', that is', is how that term should accurately end...)
Of course, despite all the stunning movies and TV series, there is very little glamourous about the world of organised crime, only ruthlessly cruel and vicious.
And yet - nah, wait - it is utterly compelling to gawk at.
A few months back I read John Dickie's Cosa Nostra: A History Of The Sicilian Mafia, an appropriately-pacy and powerful mix of social history, cracking reportage and vivid story-telling - explaining the movement from 19th century power struggles over the control of western Sicialian olive groves to the painstaking, courageous investigations which cost magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino their lives in the horrific mafia wars of the 1990s.
Plus, plenty of intriguing little gems, too, such as the observation that Provenzano's cover businesses include not only health and construction but - ciao, Tony Soprano - waste managament.
Then there are the times Dickie confirms overlaps between American mafia movies and Italian mafia realities - such as the burning cards, crunched in your hands, ceremony for new made men.
Or the occasions he trashes the silver-screen travesties of the Cosa Nostra truth - for example, the Sicilian-set scenes of Michael's exile in The Godfather are written off as "undeniably crass".
Today I've been re-reading the sections devoted to Provenzano - his ability to evade arrest since shooting the soldier of a rival capo in 1963, his involvement with murders such as the Falcone and Borsellino slaughters since then, his takeover as 'boss of bosses' since the arrest of Toto "Shorty" Riina in January 1993, his decision to surround himself with older-generation capos less likely to turn pentiti, his approach aimed at dipping the mafia's profile back below the public radar...
Yet one matter troubles me. The man has three nicknames:
"The Tractor", a long-established moniker apparently awarded for his brute and murderous strength.
Then there's "The Accountant", pointing up his astute business brain in defiance of those dismissing him as merely a thuggish killer.
And finally, the jarringly-cosy "Uncle Bernie". There's one for the Christmas card lists.
Which, if any, does he prefer? Which did he choose? Which does he decry, after the manner of Ben Siegel, who flew into rages when people called him "Bugsy" (suggesting "crazy" - appropriately enough, you might think…)?
(For some reason a football analogy springs to mind - while Paul "Guv'nor" Ince clearly revelled in his nickname and actually encouraged people to use it when reluctant, Chris Waddle was so embarrassed by his, he denied having an nickname when first called up to the England squad. Luckily for his team-mates, fellow Spur Glenn Hoddle gleefully pointed out Waddle was known to all and sundry at Tottenham as "Widdly". I imagine his response was less violent that Bugsy's, mind...)
The fact there are three Provenzano nicknames in circulation does suggest he favoured at least one as an alternative to another, relying on an effective intra-mob PR campaign to get the message across...
Nicknames are as much a part of mafia folklore, authentic or apocryphal, as citrus fruits, corrupt mayors, senators and presidents, and horses’ heads in beds. But where did they come from?
Was Tony Salerno really happy to be known for posterity as "Fat Tony"? Joseph "Joe Pig" Pignatelli? Frankie "The Wop" Manzo? Louis "Cop Out" Delenhauser? Ronnie "Balloon Head" DeAngelis?
Just leafing swiftly through the Dickie book offers up a superb array of sometimes self-explanatory, sometimes plain bizarre terms of references for Sicily’s Cosa Nostra cats past and present:
Gaetano "Sitting Bully" Badalamenti - Guise "Joe Bananas" Bonanno - Michele "The Cobra" Cavataio - Giovanni "The Viceroy" Gioia - Antonioni "Little Hand" Giuffre - Michele "The Pope" Greco - Piddu "The Lieutenant" Greco - Pino "The Shoe" Greco (hmm, this Greco seems to have seized the shortest straw) - Charles "Lucky" Luciano - Joe "Joe The Boss" Masseria - Michele "Mad Mike" Zaza...
All things considered, Giovanni Bonventre’s nickname was rather disappointing - "John".
At least make an effort, man...
And, of course, our man Bernardo “Three Nicknames” Provenzano.
(John Dickie’s Cosa Nostra study also makes a fair few references to some infamous wrongful known as Silvio "The Knight" Berlusconi, but perhaps that’s a whole other story for whole another day...)
It all calls to mind the wonderfully-filmed rolling shot in Goodfellas, when a supremely confident Henry Hill wheels dumbstruck Karen through Paulie’s swanky hang-out, nodding clubbily to every mafiosi as he passes, such fine upstanding men as Freddy No Nose, Pete The Killer, Bobby The Dentist and Jimmy Two Times ("I’m gonna get the papers, get the papers...")
I’ve had a few nicknames in life, but none which has stuck enough to become a real part of my persona.
A couple of teachers at secondary school used to call me "Smiler" because they thought I, er, didn’t.
In the late-1980s, especially, there were a few schoolyard sniggers when some wit would realise “Aidan” didn’t take much tweaking to make "Aids".
Occasionally in the office I’m referred to as "the Dark Stag" on account of an entirely misleading work night out last year when I proved surprisingly, bafflingly popular with a bevy of beauties (or so it/they seemed at the time…) I’m still at a loss to explain, and the nickname’s a little embarrassing rather than pleasing.
And for the past 18 months or so, a group of friends have been calling me Dom instead of Aidan, after some supposed resemblance to he of da Bungalow. Can’t see it myself…
Looking to generate something a little more imposing, I tried out a couple of ‘mafia name generators’ on this here interbobble - and, quite frankly, I was sorely disappointed.
One re-christens me Alley Trash Salvatore. Hardly fearsome or indeed intriguing.
The other opts for the risible "The Xenophobe".
"Don’t go bustin’ Aidan The Xenophobe’s balls, wise guy."
"Hey, whadda you want from me, what’s that cafone do about it, huh?"
"Look, paisan, he might just… loudly insist if it wasn‘t for the Brits you‘d all be Krauts, smash up your bars while hollering World War Two songs, before hurling a few coins at you and demanding 'dos cervezas now, you filthy foreign tart'..."
"Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes - or, at least, he would if those jumped-up Euro bureaucrats hadn’t denied us access to certain territorial waters all due to their cosy Fishing Policy carve-up favouring those greasy, conniving Spaniards..."
No, none of that would do at all (though there is Hyman Roth's line, "I don't trust a doctor who can hardly speak English...")
Perhaps I should just face up to the fact that, in the Corleone Family of life, I shall remain never a Vito, a Sonny or a Michael - instead, always a Fredo.