Manlio Orobello, one of my oldest and truest friends in Sicily, has dictated his memoirs to me. The result is a book of some eighty stories, written in English and entitled From Round Here: Lays of a Sicilian Life. It occurs to me that it may be diverting to publish, at some future juncture, two or three of the shorter “lays” from the book in this space, and that I should therefore acquaint my readers with the author.
Manlio was born in Salemi, a cathedral town 50 miles west of Palermo, in 1943. A geologist by education, he taught for many years at the Sicilian Naval Institute. In 1992 he was elected Mayor of Palermo, a culmination of a lifetime of political involvement that had taken him from consigliere provinciale to consigliere comunale to vice sindaco and finally to sindaco. A lifelong member of the Italian Socialist Party, he served as secretary of the Citizens’ Committee of Palermo, as general secretary of the Palermo and Province Party Organisation, and finally as a member of the National Council of the Party.
After barely a year in office as the mayor of Palermo, Manlio was arrested under the recently expanded articles of the penal code on “Mafia Association” and spent a year in confinement in Palermo’s Ucciardone prison, Second Section. A subsequent investigation in the “Trash” case, involving 28 defendants, went on for nearly 9 interminable years, whereupon he was cleared of all criminal charges against him.
In a now almost legendary essay entitled “The Anti-Mafia Professionals,” published in Corriere della Sera in 1987, the Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia recalled the witch hunting of the mafia by the Fascist government under Mussolini, warning that this might again become the Italian way of doing things “in a democratic system, boosted by rhetoric and lacking in critical spirit.” He went on to single out the new mayor of Palermo – whom, in the Sicilian tradition, he did not name – as typical of the singular breed of hypocritical careerists who had taken centre stage in the Italian political circus. The new mayor was Manlio’s predecessor as well as successor in office, while Manlio himself was now behind bars.
Among the charges imputed to Manlio at his arrest – every one of which, I repeat, was eventually dismissed by the sentence of the tribunal – was the rigging of government construction bids and the embezzlement of 300 billion lire in state funds. Not surprisingly, even academic studies of the mafia published in the interim, such as The Other Mafia: A Biography of Bernardo Provenzano by Ernesto Oliva and Salvo Palazzolo, have since referred to Orobello as a link in the network binding Bernardo Provenzano’s cupola mafiosa to the Socialist Party organisation. Provenzano, the fugitive boss of bosses who has since been captured, was himself a figurant in “Trash.” He was sentenced to five years in absentia for his part in the case, Manlio and eight others were acquitted, and the rest were sentenced to a combined 70 years in prison. The prosecution had asked for 140.
For nine years, between his arrest and his acquittal, Manlio’s life was in ruins, so much so that any judicially prescribed compensation for a thoroughly destroyed reputation would seem derisory. On the day the “Trash” case hit the headlines, he lost his teaching job at the Naval Institute, living without any means of subsistence for the following 2 years and 7 months. While in jail, he was made to resign from the National Society of Geologists, and was consequently barred from making a living as a jobbing geologist upon his release. Undone professionally, bankrupt financially, ostracised socially and devastated emotionally, he was hardly in a position to pay his lawyers for handling the nine-year-long criminal proceeding that involved thousands of witnesses.
And yet, somehow, old Manlio has pulled through.