This review was originally posted at Goodreads and imported here later on with next to no spell/grammar checking.
I first read The Godfather when I was sixteen and it made a tremendous impact on me. It was one of my all-time favourites. Twenty years later, I felt it was a time to see how well it held up.
The book follows a powerful Italian mafia family in New York mostly set in around the 1940s and 50s. It features an ensemble of characters from the Don Vito Corleone and his right-hand-man Tom Hagen to his sons, captains of the troops and a score of other people who they come across.
It starts really strong: short vignettes of people in all manners of dire straits they can’t solve themselves. The police or the government won’t help. They’ve all got one thing in common: The Godfather, Don Corleone himself. Who, as is the Sicilian tradition, cannot deny a request at his daughter’s wedding.
At the wedding we meet the family, the full cast of characters and get our first glimpse into Don. Not a cold-hearted murderer, but a kindly man who will always help those in need and all he asks is a promise of a favour at some point in the future.
The story keeps on going and it’s one of those books that is really hard to put down. Things change rapidly and while it jumps from character to character, it keeps a great pace throughout. And the people in it feel very human. Real and believable.
I also love the way it introduces a completely new culture to you. A lot of the main characters are the first or second-generation Italian immigrants, and there is a very strong-knit culture that’s a blend of American exceptionalism and personal freedom blended with the traditional Sicilian values and topped with the mafia’s code of conduct.
But the book is also deeply problematic in many, many aspects.
I know historical revisionism in a work of fiction is a fraught endeavour at best, and the actions and thoughts expressed by characters therein don’t necessarily reflect those of the author.
However, I struggle to excuse the pervasive sexism, racism and xenophobia here as merely belonging to their characters and their time. The line between the author, narrator and a character is often blurred as to be non-existent.
The narration happily jumps from a quite neutral-sounding description to a brazen judgement in the same paragraph. A judgement never aimed at the men of the family.
Don Corleone’s wife’s culture is literally called primitive (but the Don, coming from the same culture is nothing but). There’s a whole subplot involving a woman who’s only defining feature is that she’s got a large vagina. Nothing else is shown — indeed, there is also a man who’s got a large penis, but his character is fully realised.
The book is full of point-of-view scenes of even minor or one-time characters, but these are almost never afforded to women. And when there is the odd woman with a shred of individualism, she always ends up completely submitting herself and being deferential to a man.
But the most pernicious aspect is the brazen apologia permeating the novel.
The individualism and personal freedom trumps absolutely everything there. Whoever stands in your way needs to be removed and a man of ambition of course needs to seek absolute power above anything else. It tries to convince you that a brutal dictatorship is very much the best way to live.
"Like many business men of genius [Don Vito Corleone] learned that free competition was wasteful, monopoly efficient."
This, of course, is not a thing that would easily go down with people so the book tries really hard to make it seem anything other than what it actually is. The Don is shown as a person of infinite patience and passion and care. Rather than the power-hungry psychopathic murderer he is.
As you’d expect in a book about the mafia, people are killed here. And in every one of these cases, it’s because the person was in the way and didn’t clear out when told (or was "politely asked").
The killing was always strictly business. No emotions. Once it became clear the person will not accept the Don’s offer, their personality and reasons and anything else became completely irrelevant. They were an obstacle that needed to be removed. That’s how the Don operates, as has been explicitly shown throughout the entire book.
And that would all be fine (in the context of a novel about a crime family)!
But. Every time someone was to be murdered, the book dedicated a page or two to the victim. Not to humanise them. The only purpose for that section was to convince the reader that this had been a terrible person and killing them wasn’t so bad. Maybe they should have been tried and convicted, but really, in the presence of a corrupt and inept government, this was justice.
The victim would turn out to be a child-abusing paedophile, or a power-hungry corrupt policeman brutalising their neighbourhood. To my recollection, the Corleone family hadn’t killed a single innocent person.
And what the book doesn’t show is extremely telling. There’s no visible harm on the society caused by the mafia’s corrupting the politicians, unions, judges. No impact on the victims' families. No small businessman getting caught on the wrong side. No one got caught in the crossfire. No effects of the drug trade they enabled (after all, it was pushed to the poor coloured parts of the city so no real harm was done).
It tries really hard to convince you that despite what they’ve done, these are not terrible people. Not really. They’re good-natured folk who do what must be done in a world that hates everyone. In a world where only the powerful are safe and free, you must gain power.
Of course, even in the fiction the mafia’s actions are no better than that of the government they so fiercely oppose. They’re much worse in fact. But the book clearly has an ideological bent. As if it is seeking approval of the people involved with the mafia above everyone else. As if it’s hoping that the real dons and capo regimes will read it and think "Exactly! This guy gets us!"
And I find this — the overt, desperate attempt to make these crooks and their actions justifiable and justified — and even trying to convince you that this is a better way of living — deeply problematic. And extremely worrying that I hadn’t seen through it previously.
It’s like those disaster novels pushing the narrative that the only way to survive is to eat your neighbour before he eats you.
And yet it is still a fantastic novel to read, one with a tremendous impact on the culture for decades to come.