The Secret History

3 minute read

Roots, heritage, history — call it what you will, but humanity’s enduring fascination with its past remains as complex, explosive and disturbed as ever. We may live in a global village, there may be no alternative to the liberal truisms of democracy, but in great swaths of the world old ghosts have reappeared to haunt our cotton-candy present.

Frank Viviano is particularly well qualified to explore these paradoxes. An American writer of Italian origin, a characteristically rootless foreign correspondent seeking meaning in ethnic wars and a middle-aged man increasingly conscious of his limitations and mortality, he decides to take up residence in the Sicilian village where three of his grandparents were born. His goal is to find out more about the murder in the 1870s of his great-great-grandfather and namesake — a revolutionary and highway robber known as the Monk — as the mafia was getting a grip in Sicily.

The result is Blood Washes Blood (Century; 288 pages) — part memoir, part history, part detective story, part fact, part conjecture. An unusual mixture, but ultimately a beguiling, honest tale that manages to unite in a single strong narrative three distinct strands — Viviano family history, secretive Sicilian folklore and contemporary reality.

This is not the black-and-white world of the reporter as hero, the Sicilian as victim, the American as naive interloper. Instead what unfolds is a nuanced story full of the guts of human frailty — betrayal, anger, revenge, frustration, poverty, pain, despair. There seem to be few saints in Detroit, where Viviano grew up, or in Terrasini, the Sicilian fishing village to which he migrates between assignments in the Balkans. Viviano’s guide in Terrasini, Mike Cortese, ends up in prison on suspicion of mafia links. The local bureaucracy is idle or obstructive. The police raid Viviano’s lodgings, claiming he may be a mafia boss on the run.

In the end Viviano solves his personal mystery — or at least unearths a plausible account of the Monk’s death. But in this book the conclusion is less important than the tale. Throughout, Viviano writes with insight and poignancy of the complexities and burdens of Sicilians. It was the Prince of Salina in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard who most memorably voiced the inner fatalism that corrodes Sicily to this day: “All of this should not last. But it will, always … a century, two centuries. And after that it will be different, but worse.”

The ancient Sicilian proverb that gives this eloquent work its title, Lu sangu lava lu sangu, refers to the vendetta — as Viviano puts it, “the torrent of unforgiving vengeance that flows from an unforgivable offense.” But, as he also notes, there is an alternative interpretation involving reconciliation. It would spoil the book to reveal how this circle is squared. But Frank Viviano does it — and, we hope, is sleeping easier as a result.

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