The Sacco Gang by Andrea Camilleri

Review published on August 9, 2018.

Camilleri has such a lightness of touch and his style is so smooth and easy that reading this novel is like being caressed by the voice of a velvet-tongued narrator while sitting in front of a warm fire on a cold night. He can make you laugh out loud at life’s outrageousness and absurdity or tug at your heart strings over its cruelty. No one writes about Sicily with the acuity, insight and love of homeland that Camilleri brings to all his work. The Sacco Gang, like all his historical novels, is full of local colour; love, loyalty, betrayal, violence and tragedy. To read Camilleri is to begin to understand the complex issues Sicily faces; the mafia, political corruption, civic incompetence but also the food, the beautiful countryside and the genuine and generous people.

Of course, the mafia are never very far from the story in Sicily and this novel is about the origins of two mafia clans and the bravery of one family that takes a stand at great personal cost. I can think of other novels that have tackled a similar topic, two spring to mind: The Swan by Sebastiano Vassalli and The Sicilian by Norman Lewis. These are very dark tales, the mood bleak and the action brutal. Camilleri is somehow different, The Sacco Gang tells a story of tragedy and corruption, of police incompetence and cowardice, and administrative collusion with the mafia in a bright and breezy novel that could best be described as a black comedy. Strange as it may seem, The Sacco Gang demonstrates his love for the island and people of Sicily despite being steeped in crime, vendetta and human sorrow.

The Sacco Gang is set in Sicily, in Raffadali in the province of Agrigento, in the early 1920s. Luigi Sacco is a “savvy, quick-witted lad”, a itinerant farm labourer in love with Antonina Randisi. The life of a peasant is hard, always at the mercy of the overseer.

“….you work for three months for your daily half loaf of bread and sardine, and then you don’t work for three months and eat nothing except, with any luck, a crust of bread and a little chicory.”

But Luigi is taken under Don Agatino’s wing, the pistachio grower who knows the secrets to a successful harvest. When he retires he passes this on to Luigi, the young man is now much in demand. He soon begins to make money – enough to buy a house and marry. When a chemist pays him to collect flies for an amorous ointment, he makes more money. Now he can buy some land, build barns and keep livestock. Eventually he has five sons and a daughter, each with their own houses and businesses, they are comfortable. The family live in harmony with each other “but there was the Mafia.”

An anonymous letter arrives at the Sacco farm demanding a cut of the profits. Luigi ignores this and the reprisals begin. The local Carabinieri are of no use and the family are not popular with the community for going against the local tradition of fealty to the mafia boss. As the dispute escalates, one of the grandchildren is seriously injured, then the killing begins. Eventually the family realise that they will have to become outlaws to protect themselves. This is their story, their fight against the mafia and the Carabinieri. This is also the dawn of fascism, Mussolini came to power in 1922, his dictatorship is no respecter of the law, and will not tolerate any challenge to its authority. The Iron Prefect is appointed by Mussolini to rid Sicily of the mafia, by any necessary means. The Sacco Gang becomes caught up in the battle.

The Sacco Gang reads like a western, at times life is farce, but this novel is deeply researched and heart felt. It’s a brilliant reimagining of a crucial period in the island’s history. Although his novels, indeed all his writing, are devoured with a passion in Italy, Camilleri is best known here and in America for his Commissario Montalbano mysteries. Novels like this one should help to redress the balance because, although I would not miss a single sentence of the Montalbano series, Camilleri is as adept at the historical novel as he is at the detective story. Both are steeped in a deep and passionate knowledge of his subject. It’s a story told with the customary wit and light touch that only a consummate storyteller could manage. Once again the superb Stephen Sartarelli, poet and writer, has translated Camilleri into English. His understanding of the Italian master’s work is profound and obvious from the text.

A delight.

Paul Burke 5/5

The Sacco Gang by Andrea Camilleri
Europa Editions 9781609454234 pbk Aug 2018

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