Underworlds | The Nation



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Saviano grew up in a neighborhood dominated by the Camorra, and he writes about the complicated relationship that his father, a doctor, had with the local bosses. His father was once beaten up so badly for treating a victim of Camorra violence that he wasn't able to show himself in public for months. Yet Saviano's father still expresses a baffled envy and admiration for the bosses, those "who are really in command."

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

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His father's shame speaks to Campanians' inability to think about what their part of the world might look like without the Camorra. It also evokes a more general cultural problem. In a study of the general sense of hopelessness prevalent in Mafia-dominated regions of southern Italy, the sociologist Rocco Sciarrone quotes a businessman saying that people don't denounce the Mafia because they know it won't do any good and they'll only get hurt. The belief that nothing can be done, and that attempts to reform the system are doomed to fail, is pervasive not only in Campania but in Calabria and Sicily too.

By naming the Camorra bosses and describing their extensive links to "legitimate" business, not only in Naples but elsewhere in Italy and Europe, Saviano documents their power and the degree to which the Camorra is part of the regular economic order. Properly attacking the Camorra isn't a matter of going into bad neighborhoods and rounding up the hit men and their bosses when the violence gets out of hand. It's a matter of cleaning up the Italian economy as a whole, and arresting many purportedly upstanding businessmen and politicians who have never seen a Neapolitan slum firsthand.

Gomorrah attacks the mythologies through which the Camorra makes itself seem glamorous and powerful, and those through which it stifles any potential opposition. By detailing the bosses' preening and lack of taste, their aping of the style of Hollywood gangster movies, Saviano makes them seem at once thuggish and faintly ridiculous. This, as much as anything else, may be why the Camorra is angry with him. After all, Saviano describes how Camorra bosses have killed people--Camorra underlings as well as local gossips--who have simply mocked them in private letters or spread funny stories about them.

Saviano attacks the general fatalism of Campania simply and directly: he bears witness to what he has seen. Here, he leans on the example of the murdered priest Don Peppino, whose history is at the symbolic heart of Saviano's account. When, in 1991, Don Peppino wrote a public letter that denounced the Camorra, the politicians who had supported it and the political and economic system that perpetuated its power, he moved beyond laying the blame at the feet of individuals to identify, in Saviano's words, the "clear conditions, fixed mechanisms, identifiable and gangrenous causes" through which the Camorra perpetuates itself.

This letter, Saviano writes with nervous bravado, made "the bosses tremble...more than an anti-Mafia division blitz." Plain speech was a direct challenge to their power. Hence, Don Peppino had to be killed before his example caused others to start talking and acting in the same way. And his memory had to be sullied, through concocted and contradictory rumors that he had been a collaborator with the Camorra, that he had been killed because he had sexual designs on the female cousin of a boss, that he had failed in his duties as a priest by refusing to celebrate the funeral of a relative of the boss who killed him.

In writing Gomorrah, Saviano builds upon Don Peppino's example. He uses the writing style of Italian investigative reportage--terse immediate sentences, occasional use of the present tense to describe past events--to do things that Italian investigative reporters rarely do. He abandons any effort to set himself apart from that which he describes, instead relying on his own experiences, his own perceptions. In his description, you can't understand the Camorra and the society it has created without smelling "the hot breath of reality," touching "the nitty-gritty." (While he follows the journalistic habit of using the nicknames of Camorra bosses, he explains their etymology and cultural importance.) His proofs of the Camorra's crimes are "partial," and hence "irrefutable." They have been "recorded with my eyes, recounted with words, and tempered with emotions that have echoed off iron and wood."

It's difficult to convey how well he does this, how well he writes. His almost religious commitment to the power of the written word doesn't bespeak a naïve faith in plain description of facts--what he presents instead are his complex, sometimes contradictory impressions, the experiences that gave rise to them and the past that gave rise to him. He's not a sociologist but a novelist of the fact, and he is well aware of the ambiguities of his own position. He believes that the truth is a highly important weapon, but he doesn't present himself as a simple truth-teller or as someone who isn't at least partly shaped by the society that he wants to destroy. In an important passage, he goes to the tomb of the film director Pier Paolo Pasolini, famous for his leftist politics and his denunciations of Italian corruption and consumerism, but specifically disavows Pasolini's posthumous beatification, saying that he sees him as neither "my secular saint nor a literary Christ."

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