The Godfather by Mario Puzo is an explosive read that delves into the mafia underworld of the 1940s– a dark and twisted tale of violence and family loyalty in a cut-throat world of underhanded men.
Rightfully hailed as the godfather of the subsequent portrayals of the mafia in both literature and on screen, it is ingenious, gripping and riveting.
The Godfather revolves around Don Vito Corleone (the Godfather in question), whose commercial businesses primarily consist of gambling, bootlegging and union corruption. As the head of one of the powerful Five Families of New York, his power extends all the way up to the White House and down below into the murkiest depths of the underworld. However, the man draws his power not from the extent of his empire, but from the strict code of morality and friendship he lives by. He helps people who are shunned by society and law, with no conditions of repayment except their undying friendship.
That is where the magnetic charisma of this anti-hero lies.
However, he is shot and critically injured by a rival, Virgil Solozzo, one evening. When he is rendered incapable of running the Family business until he recovers, it is up to his sons Santino ‘Sonny’ Corleone and Michael Corleone to avenge their father and keep the Family business afloat in the midst of a full-blown mob war. The novel then follows the transformation of Michael, who shunned the life of a mafioso as a young man, but is now drawn to the life of power, revenge and bloodshed that it holds.
The novel makes for an extremely exciting read. The diction employed by Puzo is simple, yet supremely effective in delivering a punch as and when required. The pacing of the novel is taut and keeps the reader intrigued, but slacks off towards the end.
But personally, I believe that it is less because of the author’s writing style but rather due to the gradually lessening force of the Don Corleone’s character. Though Michael may seem to be a better successor in comparison to the Don’s two other sons, he simply lacks the enigma and force of character that the latter possessed.
While the charismatic Don simply leaps off the pages with his paradoxic viewpoints and actions– a mafia boss who employs both compassion and cunning to run his business– Michael only comes a very distant second.
As is very apparent in the character of the Don, he is emphatic on building lasting relationships with all who seek help from him. He truly forges a bond with the reader as well– something that’s not replicable by Michael, who dominates the latter half of the book.
Mike Corleone does possess the tactical genius and subtlety of his father, but he lacks his sophisticated charm. Perhaps he is less of an enigma than his father is because we read a large part of the book from his perspective while we see the Don only from the eyes of the people who adore him. But it is undeniable that Michael is a befitting depiction of his generation.
Despite the strong lead characters, the pace also seemed to slack off in the middle, where Puzo described the lives of some supporting characters. It must be noted that these subplots were all necessary to add something more to the story and to make transitions smoother (after all, The Godfather spans a time of over ten years), but it did seem very unnecessary at some points.
The Godfather is the masterpiece that it is primarily due to its titular character who is adeptly crafted. The Don is polished but raw, cunning but naive, imposing but vulnerable and tyrannical but compassionate. However, it is also legendary for its scathing portrayal of the mafia, its power dynamics and the veil of blackmail and bloodshed that hangs over it. But what adds to the stakes is the dynamics of the Corleone family and the allegiance that binds them all.