Sobering view of the rapacious curse of underworld Naples
Gomorrah By Roberto Saviano Macmillan, 301pp, $ 35
IN the immediate post- war years, neo- realist films conveyed Italian life more graphically than its writers did. Nor were Italian writers equal to portraying the horrors of the terrorist 1970s: the best poem on the kidnapping and killing of ex- prime minister Aldo Moro was by a New Zealander, Alan Curnow. But in Gomorrah Roberto Saviano has captured more effectively than any film the Neapolitan underworld, the Camorra and its transformations.
Recently the combined effect of the Camorra and inept government has been brought to the world’s attention through news footage of the stinking, uncollected rubbish clogging Neapolitan streets. It is a source of toxic effluvia, giving a sinister meaning to the phrase ‘‘ see Naples and die’’, coined because of the city’s beauty.
Saviano travelled with stakeholders, the middlemen who tell northern Italian manufacturers where they can dump industrial waste in Neapolitan tips or dispose of them as landfill, but also arrange the profitable transport of the region’s waste towards German incinerators.
The stakeholders’ success means that farmers ploughing fields for cauliflowers can come across buried bales of shredded banknotes leaching lead. Leakage from illicit waste threatens all crops and also mozzarella cheese made from the milk of buffalos. Cancer cases have increased.
Saviano, a philosophy graduate and journalist, not only accompanied stakeholders but worked with local Chinese smuggling goods into Naples; arrived on his Vespa to see assassinated people before they were carried away; talked with adolescent fans of the criminals and hobnobbed
with workers in clandestine Camorra- linked factories who, for j600 ($ 963) a month, make clothes for the Italian fashion houses.
He supplements his first- hand knowledge with material from police reports and trial evidence to build a picture of the Camorra, which reaps huge profits from drug traffic, extortion, clothes manufacture, public works contracts, hospital management, tourism and waste disposal.
He is fascinated by the dynamics of Camorra power as an example of raw capitalism adapting swiftly to markets and avoiding the sluggish bureaucracy. The younger bosses are often university graduates who use their legal and financial knowledge to expand the criminal influence to all continents including Australia, if Saviano is to be believed when he mentions an unnamed Five Dock clothing boutique as one of the organisation’s Sydney outlets.
Whereas the traditional stand- over rackets were simply parasitic, newer activities can stimulate the economy. The Camorra has evolved from manufacturing clothes cheaply for big brand names to creating its own brands, which sell worldwide. Saviano cites the efficient open- air drug supermarkets on the outskirts of Naples where drug dealing is democratised: cleanskin locals are paid to store drugs and can invest in the lucrative drug market. It sometimes enables pensioners to survive and students to complete a degree, perhaps in business administration.
Saviano claims the profits by northern industries that used the Camorra’s illegal waste disposal network were essential for Italy’s entry into the European Union, and that Neapolitan camorristi working in Aberdeen Scotland, perhaps legally, have rejuvenated its tourist industry.
The Camorra managers are also killers. Saviano names alleged criminals still at large and he has also denounced mobsters in a speech in one of their strongholds. Poet- filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini and a priest, Peppino Diana, inspired him. Pasolini denounced social ills while Diana attempted to unite the inhabitants of his home town against the dominant Camorra.
Saviano took the title of his book, a play on Camorra, from Diana’s use of the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah during a blistering attack on the organisation. Two camorristi shot Diana as he prepared for mass one morning. For fear that a similar fate awaits Saviano, he has been given a police escort and moved to an unknown location.
The centrepiece is his detailed description of the clan war in 1994- 95 for control of Secondigliano on the outskirts of Naples in which about 250 people died. Saviano calculates that since his birth in 1979 there have been 3500 Camorra killings. He ends this chapter with a description of a Secondigliano feast for a Camorra victim who came out of a long coma.
A neat contrast to the Grand Guignol of the clan war are his observations about cinema influence: until arrested, one boss lived in a replica of the villa of the Miami Cuban mobster Tony Montana in Scarface , one of the films, along with The Godfather , Goodfellas and Donnie Brasco , whose criminals are taken as style models. There are female camorristi bodyguards who dress in the florescent yellow of Uma Thurman’s motorcycle outfit in Kill Bill .
It is gripping but sobering reading, especially as, in the past 18 years, more than 70 municipal administrations in the Neapolitan region have been dissolved because of Camorra infiltration. But hope is sustained by the fact that Diana’s name is commemorated in a sequestered boss’s villa that is now a home for foster children; in the dogged work of magistrates and police; and in people such as Saviano who believe the Camorra can buy everything but truth. DesmondO’Grady is an Australian journalist who lives in Rome. His latest novel is Dinny Going Down.