When Metternich famously dismissed Italy as “a geographical expression,” the peninsula was divided into states ruled by (to name only the principals) Austrians, the Vatican, and Spanish Bourbons.  Yet even 150 years after the Kingdom of Piedmont united Italy by conquest, the truth of Metternich’s description remains perceptible to anyone who travels from Torino to Firenze.  If you are flying from Milan to Palermo, the change is profound, more like going from Zurich to Madrid than going from Boston to Birmingham.

The change in cuisine is more noticeable than even the differences in dialect.  In the Emilia there is, for example, a fineness in the tortelli and ravioli that is only occasionally found in Florence.  Go to Sicily, however, and even the freshest pasta is often thicker and cruder than you will find anywhere else.  Upon reflection, however, you will realize that the tagliatelle made in Bologna would not stand up against the passionate abandon of the flavors of a Sicilian sauce, which might include olives, sultanas, pistachio nuts, and saffron.  What might at first seem crude turns out to be something both powerful and subtle, the result of thousands of years of conflicting culinary styles that settled into a tradition.

I don’t know Sicily at all well.  I’ve visited the island perhaps half a dozen times and driven round the perimeter and across the center.  For someone whose strongest impressions of Italy were made in Lombardia, all of Italia Meridionale is an exotic place, and it becomes more exotic when southerners pick out the hint of “Lumbard” in your accent.  A few years ago in Caserta, once the waiter had placed my accent, I was treated to a three-hour meal of dishes—reheated leftovers mostly—I had not ordered.  Sicilians, who are more disciplined than Neapolitans, are less obvious in expressing their prejudices, but more intimidating.  Once, with a few friends, I drove into Morgantina to see a stolen Greek statue recently returned to Italy by the Getty Museum.  We went into a café to get some lunch.  Men of all ages stared at us with an intensity I had only experienced in going into a bar full of reservation Indians.  It was a bit like being an explorer stumbling into a remote village in the rain forest, where they had never seen a European.  If you have seen Pietro Germi’s masterpiece, Seduced and Abandoned, you will recall the scene in which the tall blond northern carabiniere tries to elicit information from rural Sicilians.  No one so much as moves a muscle as the polentone tries to get directions to a village.  When he returns to the jeep, he tells the officer, “They must not know where it is.”

Like most people I know, I have seen too many movies.  One of the worst effects of moviegoing is that it tends to prejudice first impressions of a place.  We cannot go to Ireland without thinking of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in The Quiet Man, and what first glimpse of Sicily has not been corrupted by images of young Vito Andolini and, later, his son Michael in the sunburnt hills near Corleone?

Older readers, perhaps, will think first of more serious literary fictions than Mario Puzo or Francis Ford Coppola could concoct: Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo, or Leonardo Sciascia’s novels and stories that seem to undermine our grasp of everyday reality.  Sicily has a way of defeating not just our expectations but even our historical sense.  Was Garibaldi a liberator or a cutthroat dictator?  If the United States really went to liberate Sicily from fascism, why did FDR have to reinstall Charlie Luciano and the Mafia?  If Sicily is distinguished from the rest of Italy by being dominated by a corrupt political elite working with a criminal oligarchy, why have so many honest politicians not from Sicily allowed themselves to be drawn into the same web of corruption?

Twenty years ago, I had answers.  These days, I have only questions, and if I have learned one thing on my visits to the island, it is not to ask questions.

When foreigners (and this includes mainland Italians) begin to know Sicily, they are struck by the obvious differences between the western and eastern sides of the island.  The territory from Palermo to Trapani was once controlled by the Carthaginians and was for a long time the center of Arab cultural dominance.  Siracusa and Agrigento, by contrast, were wealthy and powerful Greek cities before the Persian Wars, and Siracusa was the last city to fall to the Arabs.  Their differing histories have yielded somewhat different sorts of people.

The mood of Palermo is quite different from that of Siracusa.  Palermo seems more exotic, decadent, and even sinister—qualities that have drawn our friend Navrozov, with whom we stayed, in his flat on Piazza Marina, a lovely part of town made famous by a Mafia killing.  I do not pretend to know anything about the Mafia, though I have met one or two people said to be connected.  Rockford itself was known in the 1960’s as a sanctuary for famous families.  I made the mistake of telling this to a friend in Palermo, and, when we went to a restaurant that was a well-known haunt of major bosses, he relayed this information to the owner.  “Yeah,” he asked, “like which families?”  I named two, and, jutting his jaw upward to express his superiority, he wisecracked, “Those guys?  Here they’re all florists.”  At least that is what I think he said, because that was back before I had tried to learn any Sicilian.

So many lies are told about the Mafia on both sides that it is hard for any outsider to form even the most general impression.  Nonetheless, the term they use for their famous code of silence—Omertà—gives a hint.  A corruption of the Italian word umiltà, the code reflects a character of tempered arrogance and disciplined self-restraint that puts the will of the community above individual desires.  If this is true, it certainly accords well with that mixture of flamboyant individualism and strong sense of family that is the mark of the Sicilian temperament.  Sicilians are a taciturn people, and even when they are given to eloquence, it is in a language virtually unintelligible to outsiders.

Twenty years ago, few non-Sicilians made any attempt to learn the language.  These days, there are books and websites devoted to Sicilian, as well as Sicilian-Italian dictionaries and grammars.  There is no mystery to this flush of interest.  The cause can be summed up in one name: Montalbano.  Andrea Camilleri’s series of detective novels chronicling the career of Commissario Montalbano were, despite the difficulties of dialect, bestsellers in Italy even before they were made into the long-running television show.

I understand the enthusiasm.  I have read half a dozen of the novels in the Sicilian Italian that Camilleri sometimes makes up as he goes along, and gone so far as to buy all 27 episodes of the program.  The attraction of Montalbano goes beyond beautiful landscape, exotic characters, and memorable seafood.  From the very beginning of the first novel, La Forma Dell’acqua, we find ourselves in a world of deceptive appearances.  When laborers discover the body of a local personage in a place frequented by prostitutes, they call not the police, but first a local politician, and then a well-connected lawyer known to have been a friend of the victim.  When the lawyer tells them just to do their duty—a strange concept to them—they go not to the carabinieri, the national police (the lieutenant is, after all, a Milanese), but to the local cop, Commissario Montalbano, of whom it said, “quando voleva capire una cosa, la capiva”: When he wanted to understand something, he understood it.  The mysteries of human experience, like water, take their shape from the container.

Montalbano has been a great shot in the arm for tourism.  There are restaurants specializing in his favorite foods, and his condo has been turned into a B&B.  There are Montalbano-oriented tours, and a friend in Palermo warned us not to visit Ragusa, which has been turned into a Montalbano theme park.

Will the Montalbano craze spoil Sicily?  I doubt it.  Sicilians have a wonderful knack for marketing the authentic as if it were phony.  It is little wonder that a small group of them managed to exert such influence in a major business sector dominated by Irish and Jewish gangsters.  They have spent 2,500 years dealing with wealthy conquerors, pretending to submit while finding the means to fleece and subvert them.  In the case of the Piedmontese conquest, they were reduced to the grimmest poverty and exploitation they had known since the days of the Carthaginians, but even in the corruption and criminality of their public life, Sicilians have demonstrated an altogether admirable capacity for endurance.