Badfellas, by Tonino Benacquista

Translated by Emily Read. Bitter Lemon Press.

 “The names of the characters depicted in this work have been changed to protect their identity. Similarly, the picture of the dog on the cover is not that of the Australian Cattle Dog Malavita who is currently at large”. This is not your ordinary publisher’s introductory note, and indeed, Badfellas is not your ordinary novel.

I don’t think it is giving anything away if I quote the front-cover description, “imagine the FBI’s witness-protection programme moving the Soprano family to Normandy…”, for anyone who has watched the TV series The Sopranos will be instantly familiar with the family whose story is described in Badfellas. Fred and Maggie Blake, together with their daughter Belle and son Warren, move into a house in Normandy in the dead of night. The normal processes of starting a life in a new town begins: Belle and Warren attend the local school; Maggie busies herself turning the house into a home and looks around for suitable charity work; Fred does not seem to have anything to do but he discovers an old typewriter on the veranda and shuts himself away each day to write his memoirs; and Malavita the dog finds a warm place to sleep in the basement.

Simultaneously with the opening of the novel, however, we learn that Fred is in fact Giovanni Manzoni, a Mafia boss from Newark, New Jersey. He has given evidence against many of his fellow-criminals in a spectacular series of court cases in the USA, resulting in (the authorities hope and believe) the breaking of the cartel of families that control illegal activity in the state. In exchange for his testimony, Manzoni and his family have been promised witness protection – which is just as well, given the $20 million that is the Mafia’s reward to anyone who can kill him.

It is impossible not to be reminded constantly of the Sopranos as we read about the Manzonis as they settle in to small-town French life, with many telling and humorous culture-clash vignettes about the ways in which each family member “fits in”, using their extensive Newark experience.  One such moment is when Fred is invited to the local film society to lead a discussion of an innocuous American film. Unfortunately, the supplier mixes up the reels, and the group ends up watching Scorsese’s Goodfellas, instead. The subsequent question-and-answer session led by Fred, in the increasingly apoplectic presence of his FBI minder, is very funny. Even more brilliant is the story of the school magazine and its journey through a disparate set of readers- eventually, after a series of coincidences, bringing the novel to a truly explosive climax.

There are many acute, witty observations woven throughout this novel, which is confidently written and tightly plotted. Although I could not get the Soprano family out of my head when reading about the Manzonis, I very much enjoyed making their acquaintance. The interplay between Maggie (real name Livia!) and the FBI agents who watch over them is quite touching, and Fred’s frustration at getting to the bottom of why the water supply is contaminated, and his solution, is hard not to sympathise with. 

Other than Fred, the characterisation in the novel is rather slim, providing tantalising hints rather than rounded development.  But this book makes many telling points with a deft touch. In describing the prisoners at Riker Island, for example: “Other inmates studied with the sole aim of gaining good conduct points and achieving parole, which could knock ten or fifteen years off a sentence. Some of the more determined inmates had managed to reduce their sentences from a hundred and sixty to a hundred and fifty years.” And a section from Fred’s memoirs: “Me, regret anything about my life? If it was all to do again, I’d do everything – EVERYTHING – the same, just avoiding a couple of traps at the end.” 

Badfellas is a lightly tripping book on dark themes –  superbly translated by Emily Read. I find it impossible to find humour in violence and usually do not like mob books (or movies), but this author pulls it off impeccably with his affectionate, knowing yet satirical perspective.

Review first posted at Petrona, April 2010.

This entry was posted in Books, Crime fiction, Domestic, Europe, France, Noir, Satire, Translated, USA and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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