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Underworlds | The Nation

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Underworlds

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Roberto Saviano is a marked man. After writing Gomorrah and publicly denouncing the bosses of the Camorra, the organized crime network that dominates the Italian city of Naples and the surrounding region of Campania, Saviano began receiving death threats. When he turned up recently at the trial of a Camorra member, the accused shouted at Saviano to pass on his best wishes to Don Peppino, a priest who had been murdered. Saviano now lives in an undisclosed location, under constant police guard, after Umberto Eco warned on public television that he would be murdered like the anti-Mafia magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino if the state didn't step in.

About the Author

Henry Farrell
Henry Farrell, an assistant professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University,...

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Saviano's transgression in writing this savage and extraordinary book wasn't simply to identify the Camorra's bosses and their enablers. It was to break an unstated compact, a web of complicity that entangles politicians, businessmen, Mafiosi, judges and journalists and enriches many who participate. This unstated agreement has survived the corruption scandals of the 1990s, which centered on bribes paid to Italian politicians and destroyed the major political parties of Italy. It insinuates itself throughout Italian politics and business, not so much an active conspiracy as a tacit consensus that you shouldn't rock the boat by pointing at others' indiscretions and shady relationships. After all, someone else might in turn point their finger at you. And if you're honest: well, nobody's entirely honest, and even those who are can be smeared.

Subsisting in a dank climate of collusion and corruption, public conversation in Italy is a tangle of circumlocutions. Nothing is ever stated directly. Italian newspapers regularly print politicians' speeches verbatim, but it's often impossible to tell what they mean to say. The speeches are composed of innuendos, obscure denunciations, defenses against charges never precisely spelled out. They seem less intended for the public eye than for an unseen audience, an imagined shadowy elite composed of the small number of people who actually know what is going on.

Investigative journalists--even the best ones--exhibit similar pathologies. They use nicknames coined by insiders to refer to prominent politicians and ministries, and they frequently hint that they know much more than they can tell. Scandals are never fully described or resolved; instead, they always point to even wider scandals that will forever remain undisclosed. The result is a pervasive cynicism among newspaper readers. The Italian language even has a word, dietrologia, to denote the belief that everything important happens behind the scenes, away from the public eye.

Saviano, who has written frequently for La Repubblica, a highly influential left-of-center newspaper, and its newsmagazine, L'espresso, clearly detests the system that has given rise to dietrologia. He opens Gomorrah with a shockingly direct image of a foul secret erupting in public view--a container full of corpses that broke open as it was being loaded onto a ship docked in Naples. "The hatches," Saviano explains, "which had been improperly closed, suddenly sprang open, and dozens of bodies started raining down. They looked like mannequins. But when they hit the ground, their heads split open, as if their skulls were real. And they were. Men, women, even a few children, came tumbling out of the container. All dead. Frozen, stacked one on top of another, packed like sardines." The bodies were those of Chinese immigrants who had worked in Italy's hidden economy and were being shipped back to their home country for burial.

The book continues with equally evocative descriptions of, among other subjects, the ways that goods are smuggled past customs; the working life of the subcontractors and piecework merchants of the Campanian garment industry; gang wars among the Secondigliano clans; the role of women in crime; the author's memories of his father; a minor mobster's pilgrimage to Russia to meet Mikhail Kalashnikov, the designer of the AK-47, who now sells his own brand of vodka; the iconography of murder; and the political economy of garbage disposal in Southern Italy. How do these connect?

At first, it isn't entirely clear. Although the descriptions are intelligent and beautifully written (Virginia Jewiss, who translated the book, makes a couple of small errors here and there but wisely preserves much of the piquant flavor of Saviano's Italian prose), they initially give the reader the impression that the book is going to be like one of Ryszard Kapuscinski's fiction-inflected works of journalism. Saviano's language has some of the exoticism that gives Kapuscinski his sense of enchantment and the grotesque. Gomorrah's rhythms aren't properly those of the English language. The book deploys words in ways that sometimes reflect their Italian cognates more than their ordinary given meanings.

Yet as the book progresses, it becomes quite clear that Saviano's approach is very different from Kapuscinski's. It lacks the sense of alienation that tinges even Kapuscinski's most autobiographical work. Instead, Saviano's book becomes increasingly angry and direct. He sets out, deliberately and with full knowledge of the likely consequences, to speak directly and without obfuscation about what's going on in Campania. For him, words are the most important weapons "in a struggle against the mechanisms of power." His book is valuable not only because it names Camorra bosses but also because it identifies the relationships through which the Camorra sustains itself. Saviano hasn't written a sociological treatise about the Camorra. He doesn't state a thesis and draw carefully specified conclusions. Nor does he play coy. He's not only trying to understand the system of power that has ruined Campania but also doing his bit to attack and destroy it. His book pits his own form of writing--call it Savianologia--against the Camorra and the pervasive public attitude that nothing can be done about it.

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