Gangsters have guns and muscle, but a good writer always gets the last word.


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.

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.

There is much to destroy, which is why Saviano attacks the Camorra from different angles. He is at special pains to demonstrate how the Camorra straddles the clandestine and legal economies of Campania and, increasingly, those same economies in other parts of Italy and Europe. (Indeed, according to a study issued in October by Confesercenti, an association of small businesses, organized crime has become the largest segment of the Italian economy, accounting for 7 percent of Italy’s GDP.) The book’s opening scene establishes its focus: Saviano wants to know what the apparently bland and faceless economies of transport, construction and couture in Italy look like when they are broken open. He’s asking where the bodies are hidden.

Camorra bosses prosper in the marketplace not only because they smuggle drugs and extort money but also because they dominate apparently legitimate sectors of the economy. There is no clear separation between the worlds of legal and illegal business in southern Italy–one feeds off the other. The most wretched quarters of Naples are simultaneously its “hidden mine, the darkness where the beating heart of the market gets its energy.”

Saviano indeed suggests that the Camorra’s underlying logic is a kind of capitalism on overdrive. By his account, the clans of the Camorra take the lessons of modern business, the “post-Fordist” economy that provides flexibility without rules, and exploit them to their logical conclusion. The clans compete in a marketplace based on the threat of violence but also provide certain services more cheaply and effectively than law-abiding firms ever could. They allow ordinary citizens to invest in the narcotics market: an investigation conducted by the Naples anti-Mafia bureau describes how retirees and small businessmen would hand money to Camorra agents, who would then bundle it and invest it in job lots of cocaine, providing the investors with far higher returns–doubling their money in a month–than they would have received for legitimate investments. Contract killing is seen as a kind of piecework: the slang term for killing someone is “to do a piece.”

In some ways, the Secondigliano clans resemble speculative capitalists–they are ruthless market operators who identify and seek to capitalize on gaps and potential efficiencies that other organizations have overlooked. Saviano describes how they pioneered new forms of drug market organization in southern Italy. Rather than selling heroin only to dealers with clan connections, they opened up the market, breaking up heroin into smaller lots and selling it to anyone who would buy. They reorganized themselves so that lieutenants had much greater autonomy to make decisions. They provided safe market access by ensuring that the lookouts protected customers as well as dealers. They lowered prices when they needed to test the quality of a potentially dangerous cut of heroin, attracting “visitors,” desperate junkies who were given hits for free to see whether they died or not. In short, the Secondigliano clans flattened the corporate hierarchy, brought through market liberalization and identified new efficiencies in bringing their product to market.

Some of these innovations had unexpected consequences. As lieutenants won greater freedom they lowered their contribution to the clan bosses and eventually tried to establish complete independence through the traditional means of betrayal and assassination. This led to a vicious internal war between the family of a reigning boss–the Di Lauros–and the “Spaniards”–the rebellious lieutenants and their allies. Despite the murder of their top management, the Di Lauros survived and staged a counterattack in which they killed many of their most important opponents. The war petered out after the parties agreed to carve up the narcotics market (giving the province to the secessionists and Naples to the Di Lauros). This pact wasn’t kept secret–it was announced publicly and published in the pages of a prominent local newspaper for everyone to read, as if it were a coalition agreement between political parties.

In describing the clan wars and how they were rooted in changes in market organization, Saviano sometimes seems to claim that the Camorra is driven by a simple desire for power and money. Yet Saviano also cuts against this interpretation, describing the ways the Camorra is hostage to its own myths. The kids in the lowest ranks of the Camorra, Saviano explains, don’t “dream of being Al Capone but Flavio Briatore [a flamboyant and shady Italian businessman], not gunslingers but entrepreneurs with beautiful models on their arms; they wanted to become successful businessmen.” Their bosses, in contrast, fashion a style based on American movies and borrow language from The Godfather. When Cosimo Di Lauro is caught by the police, he doesn’t try to escape; instead he ties his hair into a ponytail (like Brandon Lee in The Crow) so as to present a bella figura for the journalists’ cameras. The figures of the mobster and the businessman blend into each other; both are attractive not simply because they have money but because they have glamour, power and, most important, respect.

Image and iconography are everything. The Camorra, like the Sicilian Mafia, often relies on the showier aspects of Catholic ceremony and devotionalism: packets of cocaine are blessed with holy water from Lourdes. Saviano writes about how the notorious boss Sandokan strangled another boss’s heir to mark his own accession to the throne, strangulation being the traditional means through which one Neapolitan dynasty succeeds another. When the man who betrayed one of the Di Lauros was caught by his former comrades, he was tortured slowly with a spiked bat for hours, before having his ears cut off, his tongue cropped and his eyes gouged out with a screwdriver. He was finally done when his face was beaten in with a hammer and a cross carved on his lips. All this carried meaning–he had lost the ears with which he heard where the boss was hiding, the eyes he saw with, the tongue he talked with. The cross on his lips signified the faith he had betrayed.

These stories, focused as they are on myths and the desire for victory and respect, are hard to reconcile with Saviano’s image of the Camorra as a harbinger of an especially brutal and rationalized form of neoliberalism. Even so, it’s crucial that Saviano conveys the economic and the symbolic aspects of the Camorra. Both point beyond the bloody but often banal interclan struggles to the underlying system that creates these struggles. As Saviano says, each time one group of bosses is hauled off to prison, it’s replaced by a newer, hungrier crew. Like a lizard that has lost its tail, the Camorra regenerates itself, and the Italian justice system seems hopelessly inadequate to destroying it, opting instead to ignore the problem and then taking palliative action.

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.”

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.”

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:

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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