Gomorrah and Camorra

Gomorrah and Camorra
Roberto Saviano
Gomorrah, the name of a biblical town destroyed by its own vices, has nonetheless found its place among the many epithets worn by the Parthenopian city after the huge critical and commercial success of Roberto Saviano’s début novel. The Camorra of Naples draws attention to itself whenever deaths soar spectacularly over the usual numbers, like last October for instance, when Minister of Justice Clemente Mastella proposed sending in the Italian army to quell the ‘civil war’ that seemed to have taken hold of the city. But this week in Naples, ten people were killed and not a single national newspaper considered it front page news.

Twenty-eight-year-old Roberto Saviano has not written an exposé, nor has he made any especially groundbreaking revelations, and yet he now has armed guards and no longer answers his phone. His double-edged success partly explains the many virtues and flaws of the city.

Much has been written and filmed on the Camorra, and Saviano doesn’t break any news, so why his astounding success? Because the young author always comes ‘after’ and knows how to subtly negotiate between the height and ebb of the drama. He visits crime scenes after the police and journalists have done their work. He goes to the villa of the Casal dei Principi boss after it’s been abandoned, after its owner has been arrested and its days of glory are done. Then his natural thoughtfulness prompts him to develop sophisticated concepts and ideas about the ‘system.’ He deconstructs and, through purely literary writing, gives us a new reading of the Camorra. By reworking the truth, he also responds to a need for understanding that is born of the mass media’s ceaseless urgency.

A crane fishes out corpses in the port of Naples...
The first pages of the book hit you in the gut. A crane fishes out a group of Chinese people who have paid a high price to be buried in the country of their birth, but who didn’t get farther than the port of Naples. The crane operator claps his hand to his mouth to keep from vomiting, struggles to find words. Welcome to a global city, a city where China trades more than “1,600,000 registered tons, and another million pass through without trace. In the port of Naples, according to customs agents, 60 percent of the merchandise slips past customs, and 20 percent of imports are uncontrolled. Of the 500,000 recorded counterfeit goods, 99 percent are from China. Tax evasion is estimated at 200 million Euros per month.” The south of Italy a disaster area lagging behind northern European cities? One has only to look at this flow of capital and merchandise through the port of Naples to understand that the city is a center of financial and foreign capital with nothing to begrudge London or New York.

Manufactured goods arrive directly from China in large containers, created by under qualified Chinese workers? Visit the factories of Sevigliano, the Las Vegas of Campania, where of course the Chinese do work in basements, but where too, for 600 Euros a month, Neapolitan tailors create the white Dolce & Gabbana suits that Angelina Jolie once wore to the Oscars.

Globalization, free trade, and international crime
Saviano’s analysis is subtly economic: globalization is working miracles in Naples because, to develop properly, free trade depends on these international criminal channels. The rhythms of the global trade in goods are headache inducing, but are also dependent on anonymity and crime for higher profits. The Camorrist beast feeds on ultraliberalism, the internationalization of capital . . . and politics.

The Camorrist system exists in a bubble that follows tribal rules on a small patch of Campania? Saviano uncovers the links between Naples, Canada, the United States, and Aberdeen, Scotland, where the Camorra of Naples has created a branch the size of the city. Naples, global city of crime, thus shapes and is shaped by the world.

Gomorrah and Camorra
And in the beginning was Scarface...
Leaving aside all the stereotypes, the chapter titled “Hollywood” gives the symbolic measure of a globalized Camorra. Saviano contends that, far from serving as a model for American mafia films, it’s the Camorra, like the Sicilian mafia, that is inspired by the masterpieces of Coppola or Brian de Palma.

If in Sicily, they talk about il Padrino because of the famous trilogy, in Naples, Camorrist women dress in yellow latex like Uma Thurman, young gunmen recite psalms before they fire—quoting Tarantino quoting the Bible—and the Casal dei Principi boss gives Scarface videos to his architects so they can build him a replica of Tony Montana’s mansion, an eight million Euro act of imitation. Financially too, the Camorra bosses are like movie stars. It’s life imitating film, but this shift towards an international mythology of the mafia phenomenon also results in unexpected messes: by firing their guns sideways à la Tarantino, Neapolitan killers have lost their ability to kill—they can only wound, hitting legs and bellies with no precision.

The use of the “I” in Saviano’s narrative sticks in your throat, turns your stomach, and makes you an anguished participant as you read Gomorrah. The young author sometimes strays from his role as a witness to write superb pages freed from the investigator’s cold gaze and impartial analysis. He wants to vomit, scream, stop everything, maybe even take up arms himself. Between this pages where the narrator shows his fragility, the origins of this book can be gleaned little by little. Saviano needed to write it because he wants to die from shame every time he’s asked where he’s from, because he suffers with the victims, because the Camorrist system inspires a violence in him just as strong as that of the Casal dei Principi Killers.

The courage to write
The courage to write is not just about daring to defy power, to insult it: “Iovine, Schiavone, Zagaria, you’re worthless. Their power relies on fear, they must leave this land.” It’s also the courage to look at your own past, in your own gut, for the painful truth. Saviano meets his father in a panic-stricken square in Rome, and the meeting is put there without seeming to mean anything in particular in the context of a narrative on the Camorra. But the strength of Gomorrah resides in the presence of this bibliographic note. Roberto isn’t afraid of dragging the boss through the mud, but he also does it with his father, killing him a second time between the lines. Everything that demands truth and honesty becomes literary fodder: “At a certain moment, I realized, maybe because I lived in a complicated reality, that speech should do something else, should become necessary again. Necessary means going beyond what things represent. The media tells us what happened with impressive speed, so we no longer need the words of journalists, but literary words, words that enter the injuries of reason. Reason is a wound; to enter it is a duty.” (Roberto Saviano, “I’ll tell you what side I’m on” l’Unità 25/11/06)

Saviano decided to hold his gun like Don Pepino, the protagonist of one of the book’s last chapters who also serves as its hypertext. You can choose your side; nothing is written in stone. The young priest rejected social determinism and tried to fight the Camorra on a spiritual level, to correct, one by one, the Camorrist myths of the family, solidarity to the patriarch, filial loyalty. Don Pepino remembered that for the Bible, the family is a symbol of love, not war, that the father doesn’t kill his son, and that the only loyalty asked of us is loyalty to God and justice. For the first time in these pages, Saviano reveals himself completely: He is no longer just a witness on a Vespa making his way to scenes of crime and suffering. He admires Don Pepino because he believed in the revolution of words. Here we come to the heart of the matter, and to Gomorrah’s verdict on a subject that is often addressed, but rarely with such passion and dexterity. This young man believes that words are strong enough to be set against myths, economic forces, and social determinism, and because of this belief the words have worked for him, allowing him to create a magnificent book of rare honesty.

Catherine Cornet

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