Saturday, February 27, 2010

roberto saviano: gomorrah

#18 Gomorrah, Roberto Saviano, trans. Virginia Jewiss


I read stellar reviews of Gomorrah in the papers over and over again for two years, so I jumped at the chance to read it when it popped up. It took me almost three weeks to finish this 300-page book. I stopped every two chapters to go read another book. Why was it so hard? Whatever Gomorrah is, it's not news. Power stinks. Alternate power structures shadow everything that seems to represent truth and reality. Naples and Campania are run by crooks. Like everywhere else in the world, right? Maybe Saviano's reviewers in Anglo-American newspapers are so shocked by this book because they are not hardwired to think like that?

But as you read this hypnotic, reckless book, you realise that it is not a conspiratorial thesis. It's voice is neither that of paranoia nor of a persecution complex. It is highly specific to its time and place. Gangs mean different things to different societies. In many developed countries they are divorced from the mainstream public consciousness by time [gangs = fedora-wearing tax-evading Depression-era thugs] or race and class [gangs = pimping Soviet mobsters, gangs = black and brown drug pushers working in inner cities]. In Naples and Campania, no such divide exists. There is no parallel economy in Saviano's writing, no underbelly, no layer of society protected from the effects of the Camorra. The line between an illusion of normalcy and reality is non-existent. Crime is judged by our intangible notions of ethics, but in the freest-of-free markets where the Camorra operates, there is perfect elasticity - there are no ethics, only actions. Quite unlike the rigid hierarchy of the Cosa Nostra or other mythologised southern Italian criminal systems, the Camorra's existence hinges purely on its self-sustaining economic cycles. Murder [even murder committed to make a statement, and Saviano's chapter on the Secondigliano War is full of shocking examples] is an economic move; bosses going into prison is only a way for the economy to cleanse itself of old blood and let the new entrepreneurs rise to the top. The cycles continue.

Each chapter in Gomorrah deals with a specific aspect of the economic landscape here: from the collaboration with the Chinese mafia flooding Western Europe's markets with goods, to the couture sweatshops, to the role of women in the system, to Camorra control over drugs, construction and waste disposal. The style is high-gonzo - unflinching, incredibly visual and rich with analogy [but winningly delinked from the authorial personality. I hate that self-aggrandising shit nine times out of ten]. Throughout the text, literary artifice becomes the revealer - power can only be spoken of in terms of what it can be compared to.

The book's moving force is sheer, futile rage. It provokes both pity and terror, but the effects are anti-cathartic. Aristotle doesn't live here. Neither is this the Napoli of Maradona, a simple case of one poor, neglected part of a rich country generating its own mythos, its own power. That sort of creative order doesn't exist in the Campania of this book. Priests who protest against the Camorra are gunned down in their churches; women testifying in a murder case find themselves alienated and rejected by society; teenage girls who have nothing to do with the gangs die simply because they were in the way of a bullet, without the question of justice ever entering the picture. All of these would ordinarily be some sort of markers in the opposition between right and wrong, but in Gomorrah they are only illustrative of how irrelevant they are to the mechanisms of the power structure. Early on in the book Saviano describes going to the funeral of a 15 year old Camorrista [yes, that's fifteen years old], and reports the priest as saying, "Over here, the only thing you learn is how to die."

What sort of indictment is this against a society? Would it stand up in court? Would it even stand up as journalistic truth? Gomorrah was sold as fiction in its first printing in Italy, but marked as non-fiction to sell abroad. It evokes my biggest fear about about the Internet-driven inclination to narrative journalism and its many charms: how much of it is telling you a figurative truth? How much data is it replacing or representing anecdotally? It is easy to remember what a report may be leaving out [The Economist never seems to realise this], but much more difficult to assess what a story is not telling you. The stories of Gomorrah are chaotic, bereft of solutions, wholly caught up in the operations of the System. That is the book's explicit point. But in many reactions I have read that there is a whole system in place in Campania through which ordinary people fight the Camorra with ordinary weapons - cops, courts, civic administration. Some people say that Saviano's story has been receiving disproportionate attention [Napoli's police chief even recommended against increasing his security - Saviano has been living with armed escorts, in exile, ever since the book became a huge success]. Would a Proper Journalist write this book? But what Proper Journalist could have written this book? And in Saviano's favour, he never claims that Gomorrah is anything more than a personal testimonial, nor does he shirk his responsibility as a witness.

...The proofs are not concealed in some flash drive buried underground. I don't have compromising videos hidden in a garage in some inaccessible mountain village. Nor do I possess copies of secret service documents. The proofs are irrefutable because they are partial, recorded with my eyes, recounted with words, and tempered with emotions that have echoed off wood and iron. I see, hear, look, talk and in this way I testify, an ugly word that can still be useful when it whispers "It's not true," in the ear of those who listen to the rhyming lullabies of power. The truth is partial; after all, if it could be reduced to an objective formula, it would be chemistry. I know and I can prove it. And so I tell.


That's a very strange place for a story to occupy. But it does its job. It is a book that demands that its readers be aware of its context. It is not bystander journalism, not goal-oriented investigation and not social history. It can neither implicate, nor absolve you as a reader. There are no pay-offs. It would never have made a Rolling Stone cover story or a Hollywood movie. And in spite of its rootedness, it is the sort of book that could be written in many other cities. If you can remember that, and if you can stand that, then you should absolutely read it.

[And trigger warnings for extraordinary violence. I have a fairly strong stomach for on-page bloodshed, but this gave me nightmares.]

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