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Wednesday, 04 March 2009

Roberto Saviano

To Resist by Telling the Story 

Translated by Ann McGarrell

   Image  In April 2006, as part of Mondadori’s “Strade blu” series, Gomorrah: a voyage through the Camorra’s economic empire and its dream of domination appeared. The author and narrator was a young Neapolitan journalist, Roberto Saviano. A first book after graduating with a major in philosophy from Federico II University in his native city. This book is not a classical novel about the evils and mysteries of Naples like many others (one glance at the bibliography suggests its vast scope; one might also cite Francesco Rosi’s film, “Mani sulla città”), nor a reportage in the manner of Oriana Fallacci, nor is it an essay. It is a text born out of the viscera, the heart, the blood – as in works by Junger, Nizan, Cendras, Céline – and from the civic responsibility and desire for freedom of a boy who throughout his whole young life has been a witness to the relentless degradation of his beautiful city. The book was an immediate success, and with success have come more and increasingly violent threats from the Camorra. Thus, ever since October 13 of that same year, Saviano has become a man who lives under escort, like other courageous Italians who have dared to confront the reality of a country that incubates ancient evils within itself, along with criminal associations that, rightly or wrongly, have come to be considered invincible. Many of these men, along with their escort made up of humble and often forgotten men, have died, blown to shreds by TNT. Saviano’s existence has changed from that of an ordinary 29-year-old to the life of an exile in his own home. For two years, Saviano has moved throughout Italy in an armored car, with a five-man escort of carabinieri in, passing from one location to the next in absolute secrecy. He currently writes articles for only two publications, “La Repubblica” and “Espresso” (among the most important in Italy), but no more books: he says he’s no longer able to concentrate.  He can’t allow himself the things that rightfully belong to someone his age: a girlfriend, love, least of all a family. After the success at Cannes of Matteo Garrone’s film based on Gomorrah, the Camorra promptly decreed a death sentence, feeling itself to have been besmirched and denigrated. It’s true that other writers have been condemned to death, a lager, or the gulag for having remrked on he king’s nudity, but here in Italy, an Western country that belongs to the European Union, the death sentence is issued by a criminal organization that is the de facto government of an entire region, the Campania felix of the Romans, and by extension, the rest of Italy and beyond. But if the Camorra, according to its iron-clad rules, “has an infinite patience, and knows how to pass the time waiting for the happy ending, that is, Saviano’s corpse,”* there are other more subtle and dangerous ways that also aim at isolating the writer, and therefore “killing” him.  Some have said – as also happened with Gulag Archipelago – that “Gomorrah is a theoretical book, without any literary value, that reveals nothing new about the phenomenon of the Camorra, and that has in no way changed reality.” And if Gomorrah is not an innovative book, there remains only the media personality, the fanatical moralist, or a kind of don Quixote without any Sancho Panza to point out the path of wisdom to him, completely obsessed with his dreams of glory and omnipotence. In fact, only a monomaniac on a scale worthy of Balzac could dedicate his youth to recounting “o Sistema” in such detail, “seeing that the term ‘Camorra’ is no longer in use.” My European readers might ask me what “O sistema” is, and how could it have become so powerful. The answer can only come from a
non-hagiographic analysis of Italy’s history. The Camorra has antique origins,** possibly Spanish (Naples was he capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, whose Bourbon dynasty came from Spain), but it was the Garibaldini who gave it a precise role after Giuseppe Garibaldi took Naples in October of 1860. The Guappi of the Camorra were hired (there is nothing new under the sun…) to maintain public order in a city that had lost its King and its administration. The guappi were young men skilled at settling fights by means of their knives; and soon they began to have power in certain popular neighbourhoods. Less powerful than the Mafia, the camorra scraped along through the post-Unity decades before being wiped out by Mussolini (just as the Mafia chieftains moved en masse to the United States). They reconstituted themselves after the arrival of the Allies (and Lucky Luciano),
with particular attention to controlling the black market, smuggling and distribution of cigarettes (known as “blondes” in the local slang), and prostitution (the famous “segnorine”***). From that time on, the Camorra began following the same path as the Mafia: linking itself to politics, especially to members of the Christian Democratic party with an anti-Communist stance. Italy had in fact emerged from fascism with the strongest Communist party in Europe, and all, including more or less secret connections with men of the Camorra and the Mafia, were well-regarded by the democratic parties and Catholic church itself as a means of keeping the Communist party, atheistic and connected to Moscow, out of power. Obviously, for the sake of public opinion, they had to keep the camorra or the Mafia from exhibiting too much power, so every so often the government would arrest some important Boss, such as Raffaele Cutolo; and the Camorra would respond to such arrests with the killing of a mid-level politician, or a magistrate. Italy went on like this for decades, until an unexpected event upset everything. That epochal event was the fall of the Berlin Wall. Communism died, and, along with it, the Christian Democrats. In 1993, Tangentopolis**** destroyed the ruling class that had governed Italy since 1945. This was the moment that the post-Communist Left had so awaited. Instead, the media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, a man with whom the entire population could identify and fall in love, won the 1994 elections. Additionally, the new American president, Bill Clinton, was launching globalization: the conquest of the world by Western business. The Camorra, whose structure was more flexible and agile than the Mafia’s, has a leap in quality. From bring a criminal organization, it becomes a holding company, a multinational of crime. The port of Naples is now the gateway to the Orient; to what we used to call the Far East, Marco Polo’s mythic China, but what is “now the ever-nearer East, the least East. Everything that’s produced in China gets unloaded here.” And then all this merchandise, much of it cancerogenous, is sold throughout Italy, Europe, the world. And through an inverse process, the toxic wastes from Europe’s nuclear plants, the muds, the sludges, even skeletons, are dumped across the Campanian countryside to poison the fields and the water tables. A region of great beauty has become a wasteland with a thousand hideous features, where the population is resigned and complicit, if not participating directly in the crimes, because it’s the Camorra that offers work in a country in which unemployment has reached staggering levels, and where children grow up in the streets. They often die very young, at fourteen or fifteen, proud to die like the bosses. Reading Saviano, we understand what has happened to capitalism over the past few decades, those of Reagan-style ultra-free trade in which mankind is reduced to consumers, and the trash dump has become the symbol of a society that doesn’t think about the future but lives only in the present, obsessively and alienatingly in the hic and nunc. The Camorra does the dirty work, but often the buyers and accomplices are in the Temples of High Finance, in the Palaces of Power, among the respectable gentlemen we vote for so that they’ll save us from the Camorra. Saviano has the great merit of having stripped “o Sistema” naked, but it is in the West that “everything has the taste of a final battle. It seems…impossible to have a moment of peace, to not live constantly inside a war where every gesture might be seen as weakness,…where everything must be won by ripping flesh from the bone…To defy the clan leads to a war for survival…And knowing is no longer a trace of moral commitment. To know, to understand becomes a necessity. The only one possible if one wishes to consider oneself still a man who deserves to draw breath.”

*from “Il mio amico Roberto,” by Alessandro Piperno, in Corriere della Sera, 24/12/2008.
** The bibliography is immense. We suggest Storia della Camorra by Vittorio Paliotti, pub. Newton Compton.
**** See La Pelle (Skin), by Curzio Malaparte, and Napoli milionaria by
Eduardo De Filippo.
**** “Tangentopolis” refers to a judicial investigation at the national level in the early 1990s, with which the Magistrature arrested and sentenced an entire executive class guilty of corruption and extortion through the use of
bribes and kickbacks.

All passages in quotation marks are from Gomorrah.


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