Post-war New York casts some long shadows, and in these shadows live the Sicilian Families. Most powerful of all are the Corleones, headed by Don Vito Corleone: "the Godfather" to his friends. His world is one in which he protects his family and friends from the larger, unfair world; it is a world of loyalty, favours and above all respect. His only worry in his world is succession; one son incapable, one too ruled by anger and lust, and the other, Michael, commits the great sin of using his talents outside the Family, fighting for the US in the Pacific. Soon after of the Don's daughter's wedding, an attack on the Godfather himself throws the family into war, and no-one - not even Michael - can escape the violence of the next ten years.
Almost every conversation I have with my friends about films involves something like this:
"Oh, that's just a classic Hitchcock trick. He used that in Psycho...you've seen Psycho?" (This last bit is something usually unsaid, tacked on because they have remembered they are talking to me.)
"No," I reply, and disappointment ensues. It's true there are many films I've not seen, and these include The Godfather. This is probably one of the worst sins in the cinephile book because it's considered by many to be one of the best films ever made (it's ranked number two in the IMDb Top 250 behind a movie I have seen: The Shawshank Redemption). It's also my ex-housemate Paul's favourite movie, and among the top ten of many others besides. Nevertheless, I now know that peculiar form of smug satisfaction that comes from not having seen a film, but having read the book on which it was based; there really should be a word for it. Perhaps the Germans have one, but for now I'll use the invented term satisfiction. (All credit to my beloved, who did most of the work on that one.)
The Godfather, you'll notice, took my very little time to read, which is just as well - we're now just past the half way mark, but we're two thirds of the way three the year! But the reason it's taken so little time is that it's an "ice-cream" book - well-written, with a driving narrative, and so many characters whose fates you have to discover. Indeed, as much as I liked Michael, it was the less prominent characters who really captured my attention: Tom Hagen, the "Irish", German-American man taken in by the Don as a fourth son who becomes his Consigliori; Johnny Fontane, a singer, actor and godson of the Don (and, as a friend pointed out, supposedly a fictional counterpart to Sinatra); and, my personal favourite, Jules Segal, a skilled surgeon and humanist (though not entirely altruistic) relocated to Vegas after a run-in with the law over the abortions he'd performed.
It's sadly no coincidence that these characters are all men; the two most interesting women in the book are Lucy Mancini, lover to the Don's oldest son and later to Dr Segal, and Kay Adams, girlfriend and later wife to Michael Corleone. But these women have passive roles; they both rail against convention in their own ways, but both remain very much subservient to men. (Lucy, who achieves some sexual liberation, does it only through assistance from Jules, though he is in many ways the book's most progressive character.) It's true that this is typical of the late 40s and 50s, when the book is set, and even more so of the old-fashioned traditions of the Sicilian families, and indeed within that context Kay struggles as much as might be expected. By the end though she submits to the expectations of the Family - and moreso, to beliefs she herself does not honestly seem to hold - though the same can be said of Michael.
I should also mention the sex. There's plenty of it, most of it not graphically described, but even just a few chapters in we hear of Sonny Corleone's enormous member and the one woman glad to accept it: Lucy. Indeed Lucy and and Kay get all the best sex scenes; both are very sexually active, unusually so perhaps given the period and social context of the book, though the other women are not so lucky. Sex is held, as is so often the case in more "traditional" societies, quite separate from love and emotion; a taboo and gift to be withheld until marriage. Late in the book a virgin bride bursts with repressed sexual energy on her wedding night, and it is said to be wonderful. At the same time it is acceptable, perhaps even expected, for men to have sexual affairs (so long as they are reasonably discreet), whereas female infidelity is either never contemplated or painted as deliberate humiliation of one's husband. Again, these attitudes are in keeping with the period and
Puzo's style is direct, but it doesn't lack in internal life. His characters are compelling because he allows their thoughts to wander where they need to; if one of them remembers a significant event from their past, then that event is played out for us with all the detail of the main narrative. He can spend an entire book in narrative order, but he also jumps back and forward to heighten the dramatic tension. When a major character dies (I'm not going to assume you've seen the movie; after all, I haven't), we learn about it through the perspective of a minor character not heard from since the books opening chapter before travelling back in time to see how it was achieved. It's a trick used several times and it works every time; indeed, it has a very filmic quality to it. No wonder it made such a good movie.
It's something of a triumph, too, in the way it manages to make the protagonists likeable without downplaying how hardarse they are. These men are neither immoral nor amoral; rather, they have viewed the society in which they live, found its moral code wanting, and invented their own. The original Sicilian mafia, it's American evolution, and even the Don himself are all given an origin. There are times, it's true, when you forget that the Family is a criminal organisation, that it's "friendship" is not always optional, that to merely say no to them may be to court ruin or death. This just makes the brutality, when it comes, all the more terrible, especially in the final chapters.
The Godfather is one hell of a ride. I look foward to seeing the film with great satisfiction; after all, I think the term can also apply to the feeling one gets when watching a film whose source material one has already read, especially when the film is either a great success or failure at bringing the source to the screen.
Chapters: 32 (across nine books; all are numbered in Roman numerals)
Page count: 595
Book's title mentioned on page: 8
Best name encountered: Luca Brasi (it just has the right brutal feel for the character)
New words: caporegime; Consigliori; lupara; omertà; pezzonovante
Inner Five-year-old score: 3 (excitement, sure, but this is adult excitement: sex and death and consequences)
Fun Wikipedia fact: Puzo was a public relations officer for the US Air Force in Germany during the war, since his poor eyesight prevented him from fighting.