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Perhaps literary connoisseurs such as we should remain wary of Mario Puzo‘s The Godfather. It is admittedly an expertly plotted work of middlebow fiction. Some of the writing is nicely arch, such as when the killing of a gangster’s wife and children is described as “undreamed of” because “all parties were too vulnerable to similar retaliation.” But one does not visit a whore to admire her jewellery. Puzo had emerged from the slums of literature. His old crony Jules Siegal (whose name ends up being affixed to a gynaecologist in The Godfather) has joked that Puzo made a living from “the kind of pulps with covers of eight girls in bikinis with machineguns storming out of black helicopters.” Siegal has reported that Puzo “was deeply in debt — mortgage, credit cards, personal loans” when he was writing The Godfather. Puzo’s earlier and more autobiographically-grounded novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim, had not paid off and The Godfather had to be more consciously fictional.

Puzo’s writing lapses only rarely, but it is conspicuously bad when Sonny and Michael Corleone burst into oratory after deciding to kill Sollozzo. The book’s most obvious weakness is using a character’s death as a cheap climax, or else reporting news of a character’s death and then leading us back to witness the event in person. We already know that Luca Brasi or Sonny Corleone is dead, and we find ourselves reading on solely in order to learn the manner in which they died – a ghoulishness which contrasts with the blank professionalism of their executioners.

The Godfather suggests that life in the Italian mafia is darkly foreign and vaguely ritualised, and in this respect it owes more to H P Lovecraft‘s depictions of immigrants than to the tawdry world of American gang culture. There is little truth to the novel, and it ultimately portrays Italian immigrant communities and New York’s criminal underground as faithfully as Walt Disney’s films retell traditional folk tales.

Yet this book may at the same time offer an impression of lofty theological erudition. The Corleone Mall – removed from New York, and a setting for the antics of the great – ends up looming over the city like Mount Olympus. Sonny Corleone is a lusty, thrusting pagan – “cupid” faced, Priapus-pricked, and as fresh as Apollo – although his pagan sword catches a curiously Christian light as Sonny is “so generously endowed by nature that his martyred wife feared the marriage bed as unbelievers once feared the rack.” Sonny ends up being “massacred” like Christ, although the Don chooses to describe his youngest son, Michael, as performing “miracles.” Michael mostly recalls the figure of the Prodigal Son (“it was appropriate to celebrate and be glad, for this, your brother, was dead, and is alive again.”) Or perhaps Michael is more of a Jonah, in fleeing from his father’s influence, until his father arranges his expulsion from the whale-like World War.

The Don himself cuts a generalised God figure, with shades of the forgiving Christian God and the more capricious Zeus. Upon adoption, Tom Hagen is saved from “blindness” by the Godfather, and he both literally and symbolically “sees the light.” Hagen owes his whole world – everything that he can see, in other words – to the Godfather. The influence of the Don indeed begins the very moment when one wakes up, for it is waiting in that most secret and innermost place, the warmth of one’s bed. We are told of Hagen that, “Some mornings when he woke the face of Don Corleone was imprinted on his brain in that first conscious moment and he would feel safe.” This line will later contrast with Jack Woltz‘s own “first conscious moment,” in which he finds the head of his pet racehorse rather than the face of Don Corleone in his bed. The Don will slip under many covers if the Corleones “go to the mattresses,” almost suggesting a warfare conducted in bed.

Hollywood comes across as a distant, dusty infidel land, or else a tacky Eden in which the bumptious Johnny Fontane can pose as the Don’s appointed Adam. Whilst God had sacrificed His own son to save humanity, in the Corleone family an equivalent sacrifice and salvation are diffused through a more Zeusian array of lesser offspring. If neither Sonny nor Michael make a particularly convincing Christ, something of this role falls to the otherwise Satanic Luca Brasi. The Don’s right hand man is instructed to ingratiate himself with Sollozzo with a view to assassinating him, but this is so obviously dangerous that Brasi ends up sacrificing himself through what is effectively a suicide mission. Luca has such faith in the Godfather that he will never question his judgement, although he falls notably short of Christ’s example in sleeping “with the fishes” rather than fishing for souls.

The Don’s adversary, Virgil Sollozzo, is complemented with “a scimitar of a nose and cruel black eyes,” and the suitably heathen nickname, “The Turk.” Yet Sollozzo’s role is more that of a religious sceptic than of a Mohammadian and he blows out the reputations of the Don and his men as if they were candles. The strike against the Don is almost comically realistic, with “rolling fruit” and his bodyguard crying in the street. Unworthy of a God, the Don is shot twice in the hide. If Michael wonders, “Is Luca that tough, like they say? Is he that good?,” Sollozzo seems to reply in the negative, killing this old boot with consummate ease. Sollozzo is further minded to replace Tom Hagen as Consigliori, reducing this apparently hotshot lawyer to a middle-man. Sollozzo’s sceptical intelligence inflicts tremendous damage upon the Godfather’s regime, but the only light which he fails to extinguish is that of Michael, whom he continues to wrongly regard as a noncombatant. Michael thinks it “beautiful” that “the Turk was underrating him as a punk kid.”

When the Don arrives at the death bed of Genco Abbandando, the doctor is made to understand that his own “role was over.” The Don cannot save Genco from death, however, and he disapproves of the dying man’s “blasphemous delirium” in asking this of him. If the Don means no disrespect to the true Deity, he can sentimentally imagine improvements to the present regime: “I have no such powers. If I did I would be more merciful than God, believe me.””

The Don is the human being who has most completely and perfectly made himself in God’s own image, and this could merely represent a purist’s adherence to God’s own command, “Let us make mankind in our image, as our likeness.” God also equated spilling a man’s blood with that of spilling His own, which remains somewhat at odds with the Don’s decision that, “Fanucci alive was not worth seven hundred dollars to him,” but the Don may here revert to the more traditionally pagan distinction between Gods and men. If it seems “incredible” to the Don that “any person should try suicide,” this is merely because, as he declares upon expiring, “Life is beautiful.”

The Godfather may seem as remote as the Christian Deity, placing “three layers, or buffers” between himself and the men who carry out his orders so that “nothing could be traced to the top.” We are told that he “doesn’t want his voice recorded, even saying something perfectly innocent” because he is “afraid that they can splice the words together so that it sounds as if he says something else.” Personal interventions by the Godfather are so rare that they have an almost miraculous quality. The voice of the Godfather speaks when he calls Fontane’s wife to ask her to “believe in” Johnny, no doubt sensing that even a man as stupid as Johnny needs more to sustain him than whores and parties. Michael pays tribute to the Don with some suitable imagery:

“If a bolt of lightening hit a friend of his the old man would take it personal. He took my going into the Marines personal. That’s what makes him great. The Great Don. He takes everything personal. Like God. He knows every feather that falls from the tail of a sparrow or however the hell it goes.”

Yet the consequences of his interventions are not obviously godly. The Godfather almost literally hires himself a devil when recruiting the demonic Luca Brasi, thereby endorsing the murder of Brasi’s wife and baby as necessary evils. The Godfather will save Brasi from human justice rather than from eternal damnation. The Don’s money has the power to transform Johnny Fontane into “as close to an old-time king or emperor as it was possible to be in America,” although Johnny may wonder whether he has made a deal with the devil after the execution of a Union rep leaves him “a little shaken.” Yet the Don is more concerned with Johnny’s faith and morality, and in this instance his investment is not strictly “business.” Johnny is aware that he “would have to do something for the Don that the Don would never ask him to do or insist that he do it as part of the agreement,” namely a reconciliation with his old friend Nino.

Once Puzo has impressed us with the Godlike power and influence of Don Corleone, such a force is suddenly undermined. With his apparently doddering wits and his children abandoned in disarray, the Godfather is not God. We never should have believed that he was. Before the Godfather is shot, his senior archangel is already doubting his judgement: “…Hagan was convinced that for one of the few times in his experience, the Don had not thought things through.” The Don’s judgement indeed appears to be awry in sending Luca Brasi on a secret mission to assassinate Sollozzo, which predictably ends in the Corleones’ biggest gun being spiked.

“How do you find it so easy to believe that Woltz can finagle it and your Godfather can’t?,” Hagen demands of Fontane. After the “tactical retreat” following Sonny’s death, Hagen can see that the Godfather has “constructed a magnificent riddle that I can’t solve,” but we had previously glimpsed the Consigliori in a moment of doubt, with his “hands clasped together between his knees as if he was praying to the devil.” When the Don’s enemies are dispersed at the end of the novel, albeit in his absence and with his actions carried out by his son, we realise that we should have kept our faith in him. It has all been an obscure, ingenious test of faith, a plan which pointed to “a day of reckoning in the future.” We should have never doubted in the Godfather.

Hagen is a slick corporate lawyer – an efficient organiser and bureaucrat – who remains aloof from the murderous business of the mob, like a manager with no grime from the factory floor under his fingernails. He is popularly believed to be a little too cute for the role, and it is hard to imagine him belonging to the same organisation which had horrifically tortured Capone’s men to death on the Don’s “instructions.” Hagen’s law requires men to vow on oath, but the Don’s own word is breathtakingly unreliable, such as when he tells the Five Families that, “This is my word, this is my honour, there are those of you here who know I have never betrayed either.” It is conceded that, “Not his best friends would have called Don Corleone a saint from heaven.” The Godfather will betray his own daughter Connie and see to it that Michael takes the wrap for her husband’s death. On his death bed, Genco Abbandando, awaits a damnation which will result from giving his life to Don Corleone. He can only beg, “Godfather, don’t betray me.”

Rather paradoxically, the Godfather will owe everything to Fate rather than to his own powers. Michael turns out to be indispensable both when Sollozzo’s men prepare to raid the hospital and when the Corleones need an assassin who can win Sollozzo’s trust, but he is only fortuitously on the spot. Likewise, the Corleones only survive because the most important “thunderbolt” ends up hitting Apollonia rather than her husband Michael. Johnny is equally saved by the chance appearance of Dr Jules, and the most impressive example of the Godfather’s omniscience – his cosmic intervention into Lucy Mancini’s vagina – is only a subconscious influence, exerted by a man working without the Don’s active direction. No doubt, the Don would not consciously approve of an abortionist.

Nobody authors their own story, and the Corleone Family succeed only because a greater power is on their side. Either God smiles on the Don or the Don has cut a good deal with the Devil. Yet the Don appears to be powerless to effect any moral improvement beyond his “business.” He will never square Johnny and Nino – one is lucky, the other luckless – and Johnny will lament that, “Nino wasn’t jealous of his getting his voice back… Nino was only jealous because he was so happy about getting his voice back.”

One may be lead into fussing over Puzo’s rather dodgy literary qualifications and references out of a sense that his book should offer a grander meaning. The figures of the Don and his sons are almost provocatively allegorical, but they will only torment any reader with a mind to interpreting the novel allegorically. “I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things,” Ernest Hemingway declared of the equally allegorically well-endowed The Old Man and the Sea (1952). This approach would explain The Godfather just as readily. Perhaps the ambiguities which remain unsatisfactory to the literary critic have the power to bring great – or at least compelling – literature to life.

[This is the third of three essays about The Godfather, the first two being “A Feminist Reading of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather” and “A Political Reading of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.” Ed.]