Author: Mario Puzo
Publishing Date: November 1978
Number of Pages: 568
Genre: Historical, Crime Fiction
With its brilliant and brutal portrayal of the Corleone family, The Godfather instantly burned its way into our national consciousness – and became one of the bestselling books in publishing history. Now this unforgettable saga of crime and corruption, passion and loyalty continues to stand the test of time, as the definitive novel of the Mafia underworld.
The Godfather earned worldwide recognition because of its unusual subject. The book and its movie adaptation are often referred to as masterpieces, something that daunted me from trying to engage in the book. My understanding of the story is limited to what I have heard from my peers. I am cognizant that it is about the notorious Italian mafia, a fabled group of gangsters. However, my understanding of the book ended there.
Being part of the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, I knew that I am bound to read this book some time. But I never thought that that moment would come so soon. When a Facebook friend sold his book, I overcame my prejudices and purchased his copy. I wasn’t as hyped up as I thought I would be because there was a pall of bleakness hovering over the book. Its dark themes of whimsical murder and unjustified death just turned me off.
But when the time for reckoning came, I was dumbfounded as Mario Puzo proved that most of my prejudices were unfounded. His skillful and colorful narrative placed me in the midst of the Italian mafia storm.
The proverbial godfather is Don Vito Corleone, head of the most influential and most powerful Mafia family in New York City. Originally from Sicily, he was shipped to New York City when he was young to escape an inevitable death sentence handed down on him by his father’s murderers. In New York’s squalid Italian neighborhood, the adolescent Vito was caught in the quagmires of poverty. Unperturbed by his situation, he began building his own empire using loopholes of the legal system. The power he wielded caused his friends to ask him to be their children’s Godfather.
However, the Don is not getting younger and his three sons are not showing any capabilities of spearheading the family’s business interests. This couldn’t come at the most inopportune time as the other Mafia families are using the family’s vulnerability as an opportunity to usurp them at the top. But they are about to learn how difficult it is to overthrow the family. What made them rise to the top will also be the one that will keep them there.
The book is divided into eight parts and began with the introduction of other Italians dealing with different challenges, mostly with the law. Meanwhile, the Don’s daughter is getting married so they all decided to bring their personal issues to the Godfather’s attention. This set the tone for the story and shows a glimpse of the Don’s influence. It also showed Don Vito’s personality who I initially thought was merciless and brutal. Contrary to what I expected, he is wise and worldly, and an interesting character to boot. The story is told in media res and the Don’s story is interjected amongst the different parts of the books.
The Godfather painted a part of the colorful history of the Mafia, from its origins in Sicily. It initiated me on some of the underlying principles that hold this underground organization together, like honor, loyalty, and the foremost one, omerta. It is an endearing thought that such outstanding qualities can be attributed to an organization that is darkly portrayed in history. It goes to show that the knowledge we possess is just a modicum of the entire truth.
In spite of its heavy subject, the book is quite easy to grasp, mostly due to the way it was written. Although the story tends to shift from one incident to another, Puzo was able to cohesively bring together the story. The dialogues, in spite of some strong words, were easy to follow and free-flowing. There was a natural flow in the way the characters interacted, assuaging my understanding of the story.
Puzo’s astute portrayal of human behavior, philosophies and ideals was astonishing. His characters are well-defined and possessed depth. There was also the perfect mix of strong and timid characters. The latter being tonics to the former. In spite of their limited role, their interjection is a welcome break to the overtones of power. One fine example is the Don’s wife who rarely participated in the story. However, her appearance breaks the monotony.
The extent of the Mafia’s influence was also demonstrated in the book. The story’s peripatetic nature made the story move from different cities such as New York City, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. These cities also presented significant periods in the Mafia’s growth. New York is the past and the present while Los Angeles is the present and Las Vegas is the future. But the book wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t move to Sicily, with its warring gangs and corrupted system.
But some of my perceptions and prejudices were proven to be true. The book is laced with dark subjects like greed, corruption, and betrayal which undermined the very foundations of the Mafia. Violence and murder are also recurring themes. Domestic abuse and substance abuse were also depicted and existed even among the denizens of the Corleone abode. Distrust is causing the foundations of the Mafia to shake, making it more vulnerable to opportunists.
The book’s overwhelming machismo is one my biggest issues. Female characters played very limited roles, making me feel the strange undertones of sexism. When Connie Corleone was beaten by her husband, her parents repressed her qualms, referring to it as a strictly private matter between husband and wife. The Mafia is a quintessential male-dominated organization which is still prevalent in today’s societies. This sexism at times made me cringe and somehow lessened the book’s overall impact on me.
In the book, the Mafia rose into prominence because of society’s failure to safeguard its citizens. The Mafia remedies the society’s maladies by placing justice on their hand. The Godfather serves as the proverbial judge and ensures that justice is served to those who became victims of the indiscretions of society. I do see Puzo’s point of view but it is too generalized and overlooks the benefits reaped from the existence of a well-functioning society.
In spite of the book’s brutality and violence, I enjoyed reading it. The ending was magnificently orchestrated, showing that the Godfather’s power is infinite. It is a well-written masterpiece in spite of its dark themes. However, it is not all together dark because behind every action is a wisdom. I can’t help but gush over this book because it is something that is quite rare. It exceeded my expectations and all those accolades it got, it well deserves them.
P.S. Remember the instrumental music that plays during the movie or on gang-related computer games? I felt that it was playing on the background while I was reading the book. This monotonic song bereft of vitality hovered over my ear from start to finish.
Recommended for those with interest in the Mafia and Italian Mafia culture, those who like crime novels, those who like to read literary masterpieces and those who enjoyed watching The Godfather movie.
Not recommended for those with weak stomach, those who loath crime and dark themes, and those who are looking for light reads.
About The Author
Mario Puzo was born on October 15, 1920 in New York City to Italian immigrants who moved to the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York City.
During World War II, he served as a U.S. Army corporal but wasn’t given combat duties to his poor eyesight. After his World War II duties, he attended City College of New York on the G.I. Bill. While studying, he also worked as a freelance writer and was able to publish his first two novels, Dark Arena (1955), and The Fortunate Pilgrim (1964).
Unfortunately, his books made little money despite being critically acclaimed. Not one to give up, he vowed to write a bestseller and it came in 1969 when The Godfather became an enormous success. He used this success as a platform to invade Hollywood. He collaborated with director Francis Ford Coppola on the screenplays for all three Godfather movies. He won Academy Awards for both The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather, Part II (1974). His talent for writing also led to his collaboration on the scripts for such films as Superman (1978), Superman II (1980), and The Cotton Club (1984).
He continued to write phenomenally successful novels, including Fools Die (1978), The Sicilian (1984), The Fourth K (1991), and The Last Don (1996).
Mario Puzo passed away on July 2, 1999 but his final novel, Omerta, was published in 2000.