Italians, it seems, have a special talent for evolving simple concepts into complex and efficient creations. Throughout the centuries, in countless fields of endeavour, Italians have taken raw elements or the germ of someone else’s idea and developed them into something functional and beautiful from which many others could benefit.
In myriad commercial brands – from high fashion to interior design, from foodstuff to footwear – Italians are unequalled in their ability to re-manufacture and export the appearance of excellence. Little compares with the worth of the “Made in Italy” phrase. If you don’t believe it, replace the last word in the phrase above with “China,” “Japan” or even “USA.”
Noodles, invented by the Chinese, would have remained soggy boiled dough, but for the anonymous Italian genius who peeled and mashed tomatoes – a fruit imported from Mexico – and threw the succulent scarlet puree onto the new delicacy he (or she) renamed pasta. The world’s affection for pasta is second only to another delicacy Italians did not invent, but certainly improved by adding yeast to the mix and tomato sauce and cheese on top. Middle Eastern bakers called it pita, Italians rebranded it as pizza, much to the appreciation of the entire world.
Italians did not invent the internal combustion engine, nor the automobile. But it took an Italian to refine the idea by adding four oversized tires and a bright red chassis to create the Ferrari – the most sought-after and most expensive car in the world!
Italians, non-inventors of cinema, elevated the art form like no one else, with neorealism, the Spaghetti Western, and Mafia movies. The 1972 movie The Godfather has been voted by viewers and critics alike as the best movie of all time (see imdb.com, lifed.com and filmsite.org if you don’t believe me).
Italians did not invent crime – they merely organized it. And in keeping with their entrepreneurial nature, exported it world wide with great success. Italian organized crime is the model and the envy of the entire criminal world. No other ethnic crime syndicate – not the Japanese Yakuza, not the Chinese Triads, not Spectre, not the Crime Syndicate of America – says organized crime like the words “’Italian Mafia.” So dominant and persistent is the brand that the word Mafia has become a generic term for designating a myriad other organized crime groups – Russian Mafia, Armenian Mafia, Romanian Mafia, to name a few – both, as an aspirational goal and, I suspect, in deference to the Italian original.
And so it is that my city, Montreal, is the most recent example of a metropolis in the throes of this efficient apparatus at work – a classic case of “alleged” misconduct, graft, corruption, and intimidation in the awarding of public contracts. A provincial commission of enquiry is holding hearings into the “alleged” conspiracies, a war is raging between rival gangs for territorial supremacy – a dozen bodies and counting, and an NHL strike with no end in sight provides little hope that hockey will soon divert people’s attention.
The events have so far cost the jobs of a provincial minister, two mayors, and a number of municipal employees. Other “prominent citizens” have been arrested and released awaiting trial. Several businesses and banks have been raided by police. There are plenty of non-Italians in the mix, to be sure. But it is the Italian names that fascinate, titillate, and ultimately disappoint.
More like the Chicago of the 1920s (with the perennial and ineffectual ban on drugs as a substitute for Prohibition, to boot) and less like the cosmopolitan city described in the tourist brochures and imagined in the collective consciousness of its citizens, Montreal now stands as both a source of embarrassment and as fodder for the creative mind.
I am bracing myself for a new round of innuendo and off-colour jokes from my non-Italian friends. There is, after all, something perversely comical in the thought that my taxes have been used by mobsters to pay, not just for the purchase of boats, mansions, sports cars, and real estate, but also for the private-school education of their mobster offspring.
I can already see the “based-on-a-true-story” novel, movie, and mini-series – Montreal as Canada’s first city of crime, corruption, and vice. But only in these fictionalized accounts, will the perpetrators be convicted and go to prison, and their ill-gotten gains seized and returned to their rightful owners – tax-paying citizens. The real-life sanctions will be much more lenient for this brazen horde. Unless, of course, the authorities get organized…
First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 28.