Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Godfather by Mario Puzo

Rating: 4 Stars

‘The Godfather’ is one of those books that leave me awash in memories – how the first time I read it, I finished it in one breathless sitting; how my friends and I discussed character and motive with a passion that better students would have reserved for Shakespeare; and more recently the recurrent allusions to the book and movie versions that echo in other icons of popular culture – be it ‘Seinfeld’, ‘The Simpsons’, or the various movies that are unself-conscious in referencing this work. The chance to read it again was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

The book begins with the wedding of Vito Corleone’s daughter. While FBI agents parked outside the house take note of the guests, the Don accepts the homage of underworld vassals and hears the entreaties of supplicants. The Godfather, Don Corleone, the head of the most powerful of New York’s five mafia Families dispenses justice like an ancient god, either smiting mightily or granting favors according to his discretion. But even gods fade out of fashion, and neither the Don’s legendary sagacity nor his sons’ fierce loyalty can withstand the changes surging upon the fortunes of the Corleone family.

One reason for this book’s visceral appeal is the effortless ease with which it taps into our fascination with power - power untrammeled by feeble notions of legality, or the greater good, for in the Don’s mind, he is the greater good. Yet, a closer glance reveals that Puzo is not an unsophisticated writer waxing eloquent about the glories of violent aggrandizement. In this world everyone pays the price; every victory comes at a cost.

‘The Godfather’ is a rare example of a book whose understanding would be incomplete without its movie version, and it needs to be said that while the book may be an engrossing read it’s the movies that are true works of art. Partly the credit for the movies too belongs to the author because Mario Puzo co-wrote the screenplays for The Godfather and The Godfather II, in both instances sharing the Oscar award for Adapted Screenplay with Francis Ford Coppola, the director. Whereas in the book the consequences of the ruthless pursuit of ambition were merely hinted at, with the cinematic adaptation the author is able to complete the narrative arc he had started.

While Puzo freely admitted that his motive behind writing ‘The Godfather’ was to make money, yet he shows flashes of brilliance in limning human nature, and in his plot construction. There is an operatic crescendo to the waxing and waning of the Corleone family’s power from the onset to the brilliant climax. If Vito Corleone is portrayed as a Machiavellian Robin Hood, the concept of original sin colors the depiction of all the characters in the novel, both major and minor. The teetotaler family man who supports many dependents and carefully plans his children’s education happens to be a corrupt cop; the battered wife is a shrill, self-serving harridan; kind-hearted Sonny, who is incapable of lifting a finger against the truly defenseless is also a savagely brutal mobster – these richly swirling complexities give hue and depth to the novel that redefined Family and family business.

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