January 25, 2022

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The Mafia book by Ulrich van Loen "The Godfather and His Shadow"

Ulrich van Leuen’s book on the mafia

DrThe Mafia has had a permanent place in popular culture for decades. And because pop culture always needs pictures, when it comes to the mafia, many people don’t think of low-profile men who also do business in Germany compared to the tattooed, sinister crooks shooting in the old city of Naples. This does not mean that there is no connection between fact and fiction, between the real mafia and TV gangs. You can see it from the fact that the little Neapolitan criminals know their own pictures on TV and bring them back to reality.

Anna Vollmer

Editor in the features department at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung in Berlin.

This observation is not new. It already existed when “The Godfather” was shown in cinemas in the early 1970s. Anthropologist and literary scholar Ulrich van Leuen puts forward a sharper thesis before his new book The Godfather and His Shadow – Mafia Literature. He writes: “However, one might also consider that the origins of the Mafia were organized primarily, linguistically and literary, in order to put them into practice. Die Mafia stellte, so gesehen, eine Erfindung dar, einen Mythos, der anschließend seine Wahrheit behauptet.” Eine Überlegung, die van Loyen nicht klar belegen kann, schon allein, weil niemand so genau weiß, wie die Mafia im 19. Jahrhundert eigentlich entstanden.

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But “The Godfather and His Shadow” is not a history book. Thus the crimes of the mafia, the extreme trials in which the Italian public prosecutor took action against organized crime, are mentioned in passing. Irregular and at times overly complex, Van Loyen’s essay is concerned with “Mafiapoetics,” as he calls them – the images, signs, and narratives with which the mafia creates its own image. At first glance, this ethnological perspective does not seem appropriate to the brutal reality of organized crime. But it is a good way to talk not only about the mafia and how it sees itself, but also about our social relationship with it.

Ulrich van Lowen:


Ulrich van Lowen: “The Godfather and His Shadow.” Mafia literature.
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Photo: Mattthes & Seitz Verlag

Van Loen first considers all three major criminal organizations, the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, the Calabrian’ ndrangheta and the Neapolitan Camorra, which he sharply separates due to their different organizational forms and histories. But the common denominator between them is that they make use of literature and mythology in different ways. The examples given by the author are numerous. The lawyer of the president of Naples, Raphael Cutolo, brought out a collection of his poems and said that such a sensitive man hardly committed the crimes attributed to him. And when video footage surfaced a few years ago showing that future members of the ‘ndrangheta were referring to the legend of three Spanish soldiers, Oso, Mastroso and Carcagnoso, during their recording rites, the ndranghetiti claimed at trial that this was just a fact of a folklore representation. The attempt to “present itself as a traditional amateur theater group” was mostly unsuccessful in court, Van Leuen wrote succinctly. However, the strategy has worked in many other cases.

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