Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah: Italy’s Other Mafia is a brave and passionate denunciation of the Neapolitan mafia, says John Dickie
By John Dickie
Rarely can a piece of reportage have begun with a more arresting image. A container is swinging in the air as it is lofted towards a cargo ship moored in the port of Naples. Its doors suddenly open, and the contents spill on to the quay. In their hoary stiffness, these falling forms seem at first like shop-window dummies, crumpling and shattering as they smack into concrete. But the truth soon sinks in: they are frozen cadavers, the corpses of Chinese workers being covertly returned to the homeland for burial so that their paper identities can be taken up by a new phalanx of immigrants.
Page one of Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah is enough to communicate the raw force of his writing and a sense of why the book has been an astonishing success in Italy. Many Italians are reluctant readers, Saviano is a first-time author, still in his 20s, and Gomorrah is an angry, unsettling work of non-fiction: so the fact that it is closing in on a million sales is a literary phenomenon of almost Potteresque proportions. The title is a pun. Camorra is the name most often used for the mafia networks that have turned Naples and its hinterland into a god-forsaken metropolis. Whether it be in the form of dead Chinese immigrants, phoney branded fashion, weapons, toxic waste or narcotics, the criminal underside of the global economy finds a nodal point in this city of contemporary sins. Behind it all lies an underworld that is much harder to write about than the Sicilian mafia. Cosa Nostra has a single rulebook and a single structure, building up in a pyramid from the soldiers at the base to the boss of bosses at the apex.
The Neapolitan Camorra, or “the System” as it is known by those on its inside, is a vast, pullulating world of gangs. They form, split, descend into vicious feuds, and re-emerge in new alliances only to be annihilated in some new internecine war. Whereas a Sicilian capo can confidently expect to see his grandchildren set out on their criminal careers, a senior camorrista is lucky if he reaches 40. Reporters who try to keep the public informed about “the System” soon find that the faces, names and underworld connections proliferate far beyond the tolerance of even the most dogged lay reader. By becoming a literary sensation, Gomorrah has broken through the bewildered indifference that used to greet Camorra stories in Italy.
Yet it is a difficult work to summarise, a generic hybrid: it is part undercover investigation, part political polemic, part history and part autobiography. One of the many harrowing tales in the book concerns Saviano’s father, a doctor. Early in his career, he was beaten up for treating the victim of a Camorra hit rather than leaving him to die; he has since become an embittered man who feebly admires the violent machismo the criminals espouse. Compelling as they are, none of these elements holds Gomorrah together. The details of Saviano’s own life are sparse, for example, and his undercover investigations do not reach a climactic unveiling; nor are the facts he garners from judicial papers about the Camorra’s role in narcotics, construction, waste management and murder particularly new. The book’s real thrust comes from the way Saviano puts his own sensibility at the centre of the story.
This is a kaleidoscopic personal testimony rooted in a visceral rage and revulsion at what organised crime has done to one of the most beautiful places on earth. Saviano feels the salty swill of nausea rise in his throat as he sees yet another teenage hoodlum scooped into a body bag from a pool of gore in the street. Anger clutches at his chest like asthma when the umpteenth building worker dies on an illegal construction site. The ground seethes beneath him as he explores a landscape ruined for generations by fly-tipped carcinogenic waste. Saviano is not content to observe the holes punched in bulletproof glass by an AK-47; he is morbidly drawn to rub his finger against the edges until it bleeds. Organised crime is a permanent emergency in southern Italy, and it has never been written about with such guts and passion. Saviano’s prose makes for an uncomfortable ride.
It bears the same relationship to standard journalese that piloting a beat-up Vespa through the chaotic streets of Naples bears to cruising round Tunbridge Wells in a Volvo. There are jump-starts and screeching halts, crashing gears, mounted kerbs and death-defying lurches towards oncoming traffic. The results are sometimes ugly (“The arms question is kept secret in the bowels of the economy, sealed in a pancreas of silence”) and occasionally obscure (I have no idea what a “calibrated sedimentation” is). But the style has a remorseless hold on your attention all the same. Unfortunately Saviano’s translator is not always up to the unenviable task of rendering all this into English. Fucili a pompa are not “air rifles”, but pump-action shotguns. Auto blindate are not “armoured cars”, but ordinary sedans with bulletproof plating. But the translation is good enough to allow most of the scattergun power of Saviano’s picture-making to reach us undiluted. A woman Camorra boss and her pair of female guards, both dressed in bright yellow and equipped for their task with a matching yellow Smart car. A sweatshop tailor weeping when he sees his handiwork worn by Angelina Jolie on TV. Sixteen-year old gunslingers, bulked out by Kevlar vests, and so wired on the MDMA their bosses administer to keep them alert that they have to drink Coca-Cola by the litre to stave off dehydration.
Gomorrah has enraged the gangsters. Following a series of highly credible death threats, since autumn 2006 Saviano has been given an armed escort at public expense. Gratifyingly, this has boosted his book’s sales even further and has failed to silence the young journalist. Read this important book, and you will appreciate why Italy is still a country that needs heroes like him.