Welcome back to the Real Thing and part two of our chat with Gur Benshemesh. Today we talk about the tension of having a moral compass in the mafia, and when killing your family may be the most sensible option. Details of Silence & Co. will be discussed during the interview and may spoil parts of the story for those who have not yet read the work.
When we meet Alexander Marazano, the protagonist of Silence & Co., he’s already pretty disillusioned by the work he does and yet he seems pretty committed to the work. How do you explain that tension?
In terms of the character arc that I was trying to work with Alex, we meet him at a very interesting point. He’s in his late twenties and he’s done the mob thing and the army thing and now he’s back [in the mob] and at the top of his game, but he’s starting to question it. There is money, there is women, and there is power and there is big houses, but there’s always a cost to everything to being part of that world and maintaining that power. He sees Vincent, his dad and this big mob boss, and Saul, his uncle and this rich and powerful mob figure, and he’s not sure whether he wants to follow in their footsteps and become the biggest and baddest name in the mafia, or whether it’s not for him and he wants to go off and find something on his own that isn’t a legacy from his family.
He sees that yes, there is power and money and it’s glamorous, but the day-to-day is simply not worth it. That’s the discovery he makes, but every person has to make that decision for himself, right? Donald Trump apparently still needs more money and more power and bigger hair and more hairspray.
You say he did the army thing, meaning that at one point he joined the Special Forces. But we also know he left the army for what you might ideological differences. So why is being a hit man for the mafia a more palatable choice for him than what he had to do for the army?
Again, we’re going back to this issue of the character arc. When we meet Alex at the beginning, those are exactly the questions he’s asking. In the opening pages, he is killing the judge, but he’s also saying, “There used to be a challenge and I used to find pride and all these things, but maybe now that’s not true,” and he’s actually questioning all of that. He was brought into this family business through Saul, which is killing people, and he’s not happy as just the mafia guy, which is why he runs away from the family and joins the army.
There’s this mystique that somehow if you’re fighting in the army and you’re getting orders from above, either from your president or your commander, then it’s always for the good and you’re morally correct in killing people. What Alex finds is that is in fact not true; the problem with the army is you’re just there killing people and you have no control over who it is. So his feeling at the beginning of the book is that he’ll go back and be an independent contractor and have more control and keep that moral high ground. But as he goes through the book and goes through his interactions with Silence & Co. and Saul, he gets to the realization that you come to: that it’s all the same and in whatever capacity it is, killing is still killing; it’s still killing for someone else; and eventually people are going to get hurt and it’s not worth it. Of course, he ends with more funds than he started so it’s easier to start a new life, I guess.
I thought it was an interesting choice to make him half-Spanish in an Italian mafia family. What gave you the idea to do that?
I think the issue of personal identity within groups is a really interesting dynamic for me. Personal identity is so defined by your immediate group, whether it’s family or friends or whoever you spend the most time around. Again, going back to nonfiction books about the mafia, the leaders are very charismatic, but the killers—nobody really likes them, nobody feels very comfortable around them. For one reason or another, they’re always outsiders. Particularly after they’ve killed a lot of people, no one trusts them; they have so much knowledge and information and that creates a really interesting dynamic.
On the one hand, Alex does have a lot of love and respect and ties to his family, and on the other hand, there is this alienation that’s beyond his control and has always been a part of their relationship.
The one person Alex seems to have any kind of meaningful relationship is with Saul, his uncle. Given what happens in the story, it’s easy to be cynical and believe Saul has been using his nephew all along. Do you think there was ever a genuine relationship between the two? At the very least, it’s very complicated, no?
Yeah, I think these things are very complicated, start to finish. Mentor-pupil relationships inherently are very complicated, and particularly if that relationship continues as both parties age, it can take very strange turns. What starts out as, “This is a great idea and this is the guy I’m going to pass everything on to,” well, when you find yourself at sixty-seven, sixty-eight, you suddenly find that you’d really quite like to stay exactly where you are.
I’m also fascinated by genuinely psychopathic people, meaning people unable to empathize with others. I read this book called The Psychopath Test by a guy named Jon Ronson, which is about how there’s a higher percentage of psychopaths running Fortune 500 companies than there are in Broadmoor, which is the hospital for the criminally insane in England. The whole point of this book is the way business and certainly capitalism is set up, there’s certainly an aspect which encourages, to a certain extent, self-service, which encourages people who don’t mind firing a whole bunch of workers if it’s going to improve the bottom line.
In organizations like the mafia and organized crime, where over a long enough career you are going to have to make those decisions of taking out people whom you are very close to—I find it fascinating that the people who rise to the top are genuine psychopaths, as in they really like you and find you very useful and they’ll happily share a whiskey and a cigar with you, but if their life is improved by eight degrees by killing you, they’ll also go for that. Saul is very much like that. He would’ve loved to have been able to take Alex along with him, but it just wasn’t an option, so killing him is really all that’s left.
Why, though? It doesn’t quite follow that Saul would push Alex towards Silence & Co. then decide at the last minute he needs to die.
The thinking behind that whole segment is Saul knows before he sends off Alex to Morocco that Alex is going to be contacted by Silence, that they’re going to like him, and use Alex to take out Luis [the Columbian drug lord]. And the idea was always from the beginning that once Luis Fernandez is dead and Silence’s cash flow is positive that the Maranzano crime family would get assassinated on the orders of Saul so that he could become the head of Silence & Co. As Saul explains it to Alex later on, the reason that Saul makes the calculation that he needs to kill Alex is he knows that if Alex is alive, Alex on principle will make it so that he has to try to kill whoever killed Saul, and that’s why Alex has to die.
So when Maddox, another Silence & Co. operative, tries to kill Alex in Columbia and he says it’s revenge for the judge [whom Alex killed at the start of the novel]—is that part of Saul’s plan, too?
Going back to espionage and that sort of thing, it’s sort of a false-flag operation. Given that there’s a small chance Alex is going to run away, you really don’t want someone going to Alex saying, “Ha-hah, Saul told me to shoot you in the head!” Better to say that the Maranzanos have a lot of enemies. Also, the idea is the head of Silence & Co., the actual chairman—his identity is highly secret and even Maddox doesn’t actually know the identity of him or the other members of the board. Therefore, when Maddox finds out that Saul is dead, he assumes there’s no way he could be chairman, so the secret is preserved. And that’s what Saul says again, at the end, that he hasn’t exactly been a choirboy and things are going to be much quieter now that the world thinks he’s dead. All of these rivalries and things have gone away and he can just concentrate on running Silence & Co.
Join us tomorrow for part three of our chat with Gur Benshemesh, where we talk about South American politics and smart, sexy Latin ladies. Check out our review of Benshemesh’s Silence & Co., and the Silence & Co. website for more details. Part one of our chat can be found here.