“The Godfather”, by Mario Puzo

I have long been wanting to read this book. Having seen the movie back in the ’90s, and with very little to remember about it – even though I plan to re-watch it soon – I had this on my list for a very long time, and I went into this book bearing a vague familiarity with some of the main characters, but nothing more than that.

Before you go into it, you need to be aware that this book reflects social norms of the 1940s (when it is set), and perhaps 1960s (when it was written), so being offended at this is like being offended at a brick wall. It’s an interesting case study from this perspective, but you need to go deeper than society and those values in order to learn and understand what The Godfather is about.

If you haven’t read the book or haven’t at least seen the movie, bookmark this page and read the review after you do, as it contains certain spoilers that I am sure you wouldn’t want to be made aware of before actually experiencing the story.

The book starts with a wedding, just like the movie, and even though it might have been off to a slow start, I ended up understanding it served as a conduit to allow the reader to get to know Don Vito Corleone, as the main focus are various wedding guests coming to him, paying their respects and asking for favors. It is Don Vito’s reaction to each and every one of them, as well as the manner in which he treats them that emphasize his importance and tell us why he is the titular character. It’s a fascinating style of exposition, as it carefully presents the most important characters of the novel while setting a context (the wedding) that justifies their presence together and allows the narrator to properly illustrate them all.

It’s not only a story about the Mafia in 1940s New York, but also a story about fatherhood, about how behind every great man is a woman, and about how we can’t escape our fate.

Don Vito tries to be the best father he can for his children, trying to educate his eldest, Santino, to one day replace him and take over The Family Business. At the same time, he ensures his other children have the best lives they could have while confronting the fact that respecting their choices can sometimes lead to outcomes he didn’t often consider ideal. He doesn’t understand Michael’s choice to join the military but tries his best to protect him and to make sure he can’t be affected by The Family Business.

Mama Corleone is constantly the cerebral anchor for the women in the Corleone family (and not only for the women), often addressing her daughter-in-law’s concerns, and Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel is in this manner very similar to Frank Herbert’s 1965 Dune, in that Mama Corleone/Jessica Atreides consoles Kay Adams/Chani in the end, and eases her into a new belief system (in this case, convinces her to convert to catholicism, in Dune she nurtures her belief in Paul) by keeping her by Michael’s/Paul’s side. The endings of the two novels couldn’t be more similar, a parallel that I can’t help but observe.

As Don Vito often mentions, “Every man has only one destiny.”, a theme reflected in his own son’s fate, as Michael ends up replacing Don Vito as the new Don no matter how hard he tries to distance himself from The Family Business. We cannot avoid our fate, and this is abundantly clear at many points during the story, as certain characters understand at certain points that they are close to their deaths and not one of them ever opposes that destiny, as they know there is no point. “Every man has only one destiny.” This is also consistent with the themes in Dune, as not even Paul’s prescience can help him completely escape his fate.

Speaking of deaths, Mario Puzo seems to kill characters with as much ease as George R.R. Martin, even though with a constant level of dramatism, as opposed to the fluctuating martinesque style in which some fall like flies and some others (specifically during weddings) go out with metaphorical explosions. Mario Puzo has an inherent ability to pique your interest in even the most episodic of characters – in fact, I can’t say that any of his characters are small, they each play great roles in the entire scheme of things – and thus get emotionally involved in their deaths. You even feel regret for Luca Brasi, who only directly appears in the book during the moments of his death, because the road to this point was paved in such a way that the reader got attached to Luca Brasi based on how other characters were talking about him or missing him.

Don Vito Corleone himself had the best last words I’ve ever witnessed in a novel: “Life is so beautiful!”, although I wouldn’t say his death was the saddest. If anything, it was the most fulfilling, as he ended up dying of old age and set things in order, ensuring a last strike even from beyond the grave. Such was the genius-level Mafia mastermind that Mario Puzo so masterfully crafted. He is now one of my favorite figures in the entire literature.

One thing that I believe could have been handled a bit differently was the inconsistency some of the characters had at one or two moments during their development. Don Vito electing not to take action against his son-in-law Carlo when he was beating Connie was one of them, and Michael’s sudden decision to marry a young lady in Sicily just as soon as he saw her (love at first sight), as well as her sudden demise (which both happened in subsequent chapters, faster than a speeding bullet) was the second. They were both out-of-character decisions for them, something neither of them would have done based on how they had been shaped up to those respective points. And Michael’s marriage was so fast that I wondered why Mario Puzo spent time with that, as if you remove that section, you don’t break much of the action and you don’t actually leave New York. The decision to switch to Sicily just for this seemed strange at best.

However, I then realized two things: Had Don Vito opted for stopping his son-in-law through some means or others, we wouldn’t have had the second half of the book, as Santino wouldn’t have been attracted into a trap and subsequently all the events that happened after wouldn’t have occured in that manner. It’s Carlo Rizzi that serves as a starting point for that entire set of events, and stopping him would have prevented everything else.

And while Don Vito’s slightly forced and inexplicable actions were a means to ensure the plot unfolds in a certain way that Mario Puzo aimed for, and it’s debatable if this could have been done in a different manner, the death of Michael’s newly-wed bride serves as a trigger for him to finally accept his fate and take on the path to become the next Don. Just like in the case of Paul Atreides and the death of baby Leto in Dune, this is the trigger that delivers the Man to his Destiny.

Without those two mechanisms, we wouldn’t have had the story as it unfolded. And that is the factual truth.

I can say wholeheartedly that The Godfather was one of the best books I have ever read, and it’s no wonder it spawned three fantastic movies. It is considered Mario Puzo’s Magnum Opus, and I can see why. The only thing I regret is not reading it earlier. However, I always knew I would read it at some point, even though I wasn’t aware of Don Vito’s favorite saying until now.

“Every man has only one destiny.” – Don Vito Corleone