Sicilian mobster wins literary prize, stirring controversy

A jailed Sicilian mobster who cannot remember how many people he has killed has sparked a row in Italy after being awarded a top literary prize for his autobiography.

Giuseppe Grassonelli, 49, who was given a life sentence in 1992 for at least a dozen murders, has since earned a philosophy degree in jail. On Monday, he won a Sicilian prize founded by Leonardo Sciascia, one of Sicily's most respected writers and a chronicler of the Mafia.


The short-listing of Grassonelli prompted a furious reaction from Gaspare Agnello, a jury member and friend of Sciascia. Agnello resigned from the jury before prizes were awarded, saying Sciascia, who died in 1989, would have been appalled.

Grassonelli, said Agnello, had refused to become a government witness and "seeks a veiled justification of his actions, which he continues to describe as acts of war rather than Mafia murders."

Making matters worse, Grassonelli's book, "Malerba," beat competition from a book by Caterina Chinnici about her father, an anti-Mafia judge killed by a car bomb in 1983.



An earlier version of this post identified the daughter of a slain anti-Mafia judge as Cristina Chinnici. She is Caterina Chinnici.


"There is no voice for the victims," in Grassonelli's book, said Sonia Buscemi, a resident of Grotte, where the competition is held and where locals cast votes for the Sciascia-Racalmare prize. "It is just the story of a vendetta, by the person who carried out that vendetta."

But Carmelo Sardo, a TV journalist who co-wrote "Malerba" with Grassonelli, said the killer had asked forgiveness and deserved his prize. "He has said he was a barbarous killer and has written to the youth of his hometown, Porto Empedocle, asking to be forgiven for his violence," Sardo said.

"He didn't want to give evidence against others because he wanted to be held solely responsible for his own crimes," he added.

Sardo did suggest Grassonelli was not entirely penitent. "When I asked him how many people he killed, he said, 'The right ones.'"

Grassonelli got his first taste of Mafia murder in 1986 when he was caught in a Cosa Nostra massacre in a bar in Porto Empedocle, which left two relatives and two friends dead. He discovered the mob had been targeting his uncle, a small-time criminal who had refused to take orders from the local Mafia boss.

Organizing his own mob of young killers, who became known as The Stidda, Grassonelli launched revenge attacks on Cosa Nostra, sparking a mob war that left 400 dead by 1992.

When he finally killed the Cosa Nostra boss in Porto Empedocle, Grassonelli went on the run, only to be arrested.


"In jail, Grassonelli went from a semiliterate mobster to highly cultured philosophy student who read Dostoevsky and was described by his professor as one of the most intelligent people he had met," Sardo said.

Gaetano Savatteri, the president of the prize, said Grassonelli's victory marked the first time he could remember a Sicilian literary award being given to a book about the Mafia. "In Sicily there is an idea that literature must not deal with the Mafia, but I believe it has the duty to do so," he said. "That's why I am pleased this book has caused such a row."

Kington is a special correspondent.