Underworlds | The Nation



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Saviano's Campania is a country that has become a wasteland hidden in plain sight. The closing pages invoke a potent metaphor of fecundity gone wrong:

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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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Rubbish has swollen the belly of southern Italy, stretching it like a pregnant belly, but the fetus never grows; it aborts money, then immediately becomes pregnant again, only to abort and conceive again, to the point where the body is ruined, the arteries are clogged, the lungs filled, the synapses destroyed. Over and over and over again.

The metaphor is jarring, but Saviano shows how physically apt it is. Much of the economy of Campania depends on "abusive" building and the illegal disposal of toxic waste. People are terrified when a landfill opens near their homes; they know that it will likely be used by Camorra-sponsored businesses to hide illegal and toxic trash. There are markets in everything--children dig with hands and spoons for illegally dumped human bones, which come from graveyards elsewhere in Italy that are too full. A skull with teeth in good condition will fetch 100 euros as a curio in the flea market; an intact rib cage is worth 300 euros. All of Campania is, in a sense, an economy of the junkyard, built on toxic, corrosive trash that becomes more poisonous each time it is reused.

In Excellent Cadavers (1995), his excavation of the junkyard of modern Italian politics, Alexander Stille writes about how Giovanni Falcone, the anti-Mafia magistrate, found himself increasingly isolated as he pursued his fight against the bosses. Saviano clearly expected a similar fate after writing Gomorrah. He didn't anticipate much public reaction beyond derision, another round of a "useless battle in which you're sure to play the role of the loser." It isn't hard to see why; his book points to the need for profound changes in Italian politics. As Stille documents in his recent book The Sack of Rome, the former prime minister and current leader of the opposition, Silvio Berlusconi, employed a fixer with strong Mafia connections as his right-hand man for many years and has never been able satisfactorily to explain the sources of his early wealth. The written word, however eloquent and explosive, isn't enough on its own. A political system in which a man like Berlusconi can come to dominate politics is not one that will face up to the task of clearing the filth out of the stables without radical and unlikely reforms.

This makes Saviano's political position a complicated one. Although Gomorrah has become a bestseller in Italy and won the prestigious Viareggio prize, Saviano lives in hiding. He has spoken in interviews about his loneliness and isolation. Saviano hasn't prevailed, but it would be an enormous mistake to treat him as either a victim or a martyr. As his discussion of Pasolini implies, Italians have a highly problematic tendency both to neuter and beatify their naysayers ex post facto by treating them as saintlike figures doomed by their idealism and the impracticality of their ideas. One of the many excellent qualities of Stille's history of the Mafia is that it opposes this process of mythification by stressing that the revered anti-Mafia prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were real human beings working within a messy political system.

Roberto Saviano isn't a saint, and he doesn't want to be one. In the closing pages of Gomorrah, he reflects on what it would be like if he were Steve McQueen in the final scenes of the film Papillon,

floating away on a sack of coconuts. It was an absurd thought, but at certain moments there's nothing else to do but humor your own delirium as something you don't chose [sic] but simply endure. I wanted to shout, to scream, to tear my lungs out like Papillon. I wanted to howl from deep down in my gut, my throat exploding with all the voice left in me: "Hey, you bastards, I'm still here!"

Whenever or wherever Saviano touches land again, he's still going to be an awkward customer. Even if he isn't winning, he's doing his damnedest to stop people from smoothing away the inconvenient truths of his work.

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