Talking Corpses

Tim Parks

‘When Lot lived in Sodom and Gomorrah,’ Peter wrote in his Second Epistle, ‘he was oppressed and tormented day after day by their lawless deeds.’ Having grown up in Naples, Roberto Saviano is similarly tormented and oppressed. Gomorrah is his account of the lawless deeds of the Camorra, the Neapolitan Mafia. Conveniently assonant as the two names may be, the crimes of Naples are not those we associate with the Cities of the Plain, and Saviano is not the righteous man who withdraws when God steps in to incinerate the sinful townsfolk. On the contrary, he seems to be drawn to what he abhors, and does everything in his power to see the Camorra and its lawlessness close up.

There have been any number of books on organised crime in Italy. What makes Saviano’s different is the intensity and complexity of his engagement. It is not like that of Nando dalla Chiesa, the son of a senior policeman murdered by the Mafia and the author of books denouncing the complicity between political parties and criminal organisations. For all his personal investment, dalla Chiesa’s writings remain within the category of investigative journalism: his aim is to unmask political involvement at the highest level. Saviano is more visceral. Under cover of an authentic anthropological interest and an urgent determination to bear witness, he never fails to put himself in the scene. He wants to talk to workers in Camorra-run factories, to child recruits playing with guns, to drug couriers, to the guinea-pig addicts who try out their cocaine, to the shadowy figure who takes subsistence money to the wives of the men in jail, to hustlers, murderers. He wants to visit toxic-waste dumps, makeshift warehouses for contraband, the deserted villas of arrested Camorra bosses. He attends the funerals of murder victims and the trials of their killers; he is in the street when Camorra communities raise barriers against police raids.

But most of all Saviano wants to be at the scene of the crime: to see the shattered windscreens and the corpses riddled with bullets, to hear the moans of the dying, to smell burned or decaying flesh, and then, when all has been savoured and described, to record his own reactions. A chill down his spine, a wrenching in his stomach, a weakening in his legs, an urgent need to vomit or pee or run: these, more than any statistics, are the measure of the scandal that is the Camorra. It is this deeply unsettling aspect of Gomorrah that gives the book an appeal that goes far beyond a specific interest in Italy or organised crime. We all share a morbid fascination for the crime scene. And we are concerned for Saviano’s welfare.

One strategy of the book is to deny the reader a reassuring narrative structure, either historical or autobiographical. We plunge straight in. There is the Camorra and there is Saviano. We begin in the port of Naples. Saviano, then presumably in his early twenties (he was born in 1979), finds a room to let in return for working at weekends for a Chinese organisation that is challenging the local clans. His job is to help convert what is officially residential property into warehouses so that imported goods can be hidden and import duties avoided. The apartment blocks risk collapse as wall after wall is brought down. It doesn’t matter. He describes a 5 a.m. boat trip to a ship out at sea to offload brand-name trainers. They fill the boat so full it seems it must sink. The only thing that matters is profit. Saviano is good at conveying the frenzy of an organisation desperate to assert itself in the face of cut-throat, globalised competition.

His Chinese employer introduces him to the world of dressmaking sweatshops. We learn to distinguish between those who work directly for the clans, handling guns, money and drugs, and the workers who are exploited by them, producing high-quality products for the most miserable wages and with no social security. These men and women are deliberately kept needy and hungry: otherwise they might have the leisure to think about what’s happening to them and leave. Saviano meets a talented dress-cutter paid a pittance for extremely skilled work. The same man travels in the boot of a car to give well-paid lessons to the Camorra’s Chinese rivals, at the risk of his life. A barrage of statistics establishes the role of Neapolitan sweatshops in the world of haute couture. Saviano’s style is fragmented, cumulative, insistent, dramatic. The reader must understand how important all this is, and the intensity of its effect on Saviano (in my translation):

All the fashion of the parades, all the genius of the most dazzling shows comes from here. From Naples and Salento. The main centres for black-market textiles . . . Casarano, Tricase, Taviano, Melissano, or Capo di Leuca, lower Salento. This is where they’re from. From this hole. All manufactured goods come out of the dark. That’s the law of capitalism. But to look into that hole, to have it before your eyes, gives you a weird feeling. An anxious heaviness. Like having the truth on your stomach.

At 13, walking to school, Saviano saw a car with a man’s legs sticking out of the front side-window. He had been turned upside down by the force of machine-gun bullets. When the police pulled the dead man out, an erection was poking through his torn clothes. The young Saviano stared, fascinated. The same fascination remained in 2004, when the dominant Di Lauro clan faced a schism in the depressed suburb of Secondigliano, two miles north of central Naples. ‘To follow the feud I’d managed to get hold of a radio capable of picking up police frequencies. So riding my Vespa I’d arrive at the scene pretty much at the same time as the squad cars.’

Saviano stays glued to that radio night and day for months, as the feud claims a death every 24 hours. A girl is found tortured and burned; a man is beheaded, the head on the back seat of his car; a decaying corpse, atrociously disfigured, is dumped in a skip. But most of the killings are hit-and-run executions. A woman answers her door ‘and someone points the barrel of a pistol in her face and shoots. Blood and cerebral fluid pour from her head as from a broken egg.’ Men are shot to pieces in cars or supermarkets. Saviano arrives on his Vespa:

Blood everywhere. It’s almost as if his soul had drained out of the bullet holes that have scarred his whole body. When you see so much blood on the ground you start touching yourself, to check that you haven’t been wounded too, that your blood isn’t mixed up with his; you get into a psychotic state, you need to be sure there are no cuts on your body, maybe you’ve been shot yourself without realising it. You just don’t believe there could be so much blood in one person, you’re sure there can’t be so much in you. Even when you’ve checked that none of the blood is yours, you still can’t calm down: maybe you haven’t haemorrhaged, but you feel empty. You’ve become a haemorrhage yourself, your legs feel wobbly, your tongue is sticky, your hands have dissolved away into that thick pool of blood, you need someone to look into your eyes to check for anaemia. You need to stop a nurse and demand a transfusion, you need to have your stomach a bit less tight so you can eat a steak, if you could do that without throwing up. You have to close your eyes, and take care not to breathe. The smell of congealing blood has saturated the room, saturated even the whitewash, and it has a tang of rusty iron. You’ve got to get out, go outside, get into the fresh air before they chuck sawdust on the blood, because the mix of blood and sawdust produces a stench that will break down any resistance to vomiting.

It seems that deeper even than the scandal of the Camorra, for Saviano, is the scandal of death itself. ‘Having seen dozens of murdered men, spattered with blood and dirt, giving off disgusting smells, corpses met by onlookers with curiosity or professional indifference, or kicked aside like toxic waste or wept over in desperation, I have grasped only one thing for sure, an idea so basic it seems dumb: death stinks.’

The Neapolitans are renowned for a cult of death that dates back to the Baroque and long before it, a cult whose remnants are still visible in churches and cemeteries where skulls are put on display. The young initiates into the Camorra, Saviano tells us, are known as ‘talking corpses’, so certain is the end they will meet. Why then do they join? He quotes a letter written by a jailed adolescent:

Everybody I know is dead or in jail. I want to be a boss. I want to have supermarkets, shops, factories. I want to have women. I want three cars and when I go into a shop I want people to respect me. I want to own stores all over the world. And then I want to die. But like a real man dies, a man really in command. I want to be murdered.

‘The logic of the criminal entrepreneur,’ Saviano insists, ‘coincides with that of the most aggressive neoliberalism.’ These men want maximum power for however brief a time. Nothing else interests them. Winning and losing is the only polarity they know; ‘morality is the weakness of the loser.’ ‘The only thing you learn in this place,’ a priest says at a 15-year-old’s funeral, ‘is how to die.’

And why is Saviano doing what he’s doing: naming names, describing incidents at first hand, exposing himself to the ire of such a ferocious killing machine? Amid analyses of criminal penetration of the retail business, a trip to Scotland to see how the Camorra is investing there, reflections on the music that baby killers listen to while they murder, on the decor preferred by Camorra bosses, their deviant religiosity, their women, Saviano offers few hints of his own background. But they are telling. Of his mother we learn only that she urgently wishes he would leave Naples and stop visiting crime scenes. His parents, we understand, are long separated. His father, he tells us, was once severely beaten when, as an ambulance doctor, he treated and saved a man shot by the Camorra, the usual practice being that when a victim is found still to be alive, the ambulance waits until the murderers come back to finish him off. But Saviano also describes how his father made it a matter of personal pride that his son should learn to shoot:

‘Roberto, what’s a man with a gun but no degree?’

‘An asshole with a gun.’

‘Right. And what’s a man with a degree but no gun?’

‘An asshole with a degree.’

‘Right. What’s a man with a gun and a degree.’

‘A man, Daddy!’

   ‘Right! Robertino!’

‘Roberto,’ his father says on another occasion, ‘a real man mustn’t be afraid of anyone, he’s got to know things, of course, but he’s got to instil fear as well. If you don’t scare people, if people aren’t afraid when they look at you, then deep down you haven’t learned anything.’ Saviano père is impressed by the local bosses and the respect they command. ‘Command’ is an important word for him. ‘There are those who command words and those who command things. You’ve got to understand who’s commanding things, while pretending to believe in the guys commanding words. But you must always know the truth in your flesh and bones. Only the guys commanding things are really in command.’

A philosopher is less important than a doctor, Saviano’s father tells his son, because a doctor has real power over the life of others, whereas a philosopher has no power over anything. Accustomed, Saviano remarks, to being a disappointment to his father, he went on to do a philosophy degree and refused to accept that things are superior to words. One chapter of Gomorrah tells the story of Don Peppino, a priest who spoke out against the Camorra and was shot dead in his church when Saviano was 16. Without being a Christian, Saviano feels a strong affinity for Don Peppino and in particular for the priest’s insistence on ‘the priority of the word’, as witness and accusation, the word that ‘can track down money from its stench’, the word that must be ‘put at the centre of a struggle against the mechanisms of power. Words in the path of cement mixers and rifles. Not metaphorically. Really. Being there to accuse and to testify. The word with its only defence: speaking out.’

Saviano’s own huge commercial success demonstrates that words can produce money as well as tracking it down. And to set the word against ‘the mechanisms of power’ is to acknowledge that words are themselves an important source of power and have always been an integral part of the power game. Saviano says that his father ‘adored Pope John Paul II’ and was hugely impressed by the numbers who listened to him and the power this brought. ‘All the powerful kneeled before him. For my father this was enough to admire a man.’ With the sales of Gomorrah running into millions and its author fêted by Nobel Prize-winners and politicians of every colour, Saviano’s father will have been obliged to revise his position both on his disappointing son and on the power of the word.

Yet however powerful the word may be, it seems no book can be entirely successful without a film adaptation. In this case, however, there were obvious obstacles. To show Saviano riding his scooter to murder scenes might have seemed like a glorification of the author, or an invitation to worry about his mental health. Even worse would have been a glorification of the criminals, with some Hollywood plot that engaged us directly in the fates of rival bosses. Faced with a deeply rooted culture of organised crime in Sicily, Naples and Calabria, the Italian film industry has learned to put aside such entertainments. Given these restrictions, the director Matteo Garrone and screenplay writer Maurizio Braucci opted to use five or six intertwining narratives drawing on material scattered throughout Saviano’s book to offer a broad picture of the community within which the criminal organisation operates. We have the underpaid dress-cutter giving lessons to the Chinese, the beautiful young boy who ‘progresses’ from delivering shopping to delivering drugs, the ‘submarine’, who takes money to relatives of Camorra men in jail, the entrepreneur buying land so he can dump toxic waste on it, and, gathering all the strands together, the beginnings of a clan schism and consequent feud, showing the tremendous anxiety generated as everyone struggles to understand who is on which side and whether they themselves are in the firing line.

The film was shot in a notorious Secondigliano housing estate made up of three dilapidated apartment blocks with long open-air walkways and gloomy underground spaces; at every vantage point, Camorra lookouts – often very small boys – shout laconically to each other whenever an unknown car or a stranger enters the area. Close-up camerawork and low, or chiaroscuro lighting intensifies a sense of entrapment. There are no views of la bella Napoli, no middle-class pleasures, no escape. Even the occasional landscape scenes are gloomy and untidy, cluttered with relics and abandoned buildings.

To underline the community’s suffocating enclosure and isolation the film is spoken in a dialect so strong that subtitles are provided even for Italian viewers. The actors were mostly local people, preferably from Secondigliano; some, it has since turned out, were themselves involved in the Camorra. There are extraordinary performances from a pair of young men who refuse to join the clans and embark instead on a life of petty crime, glorying in the thrill and power of the moment, snatching cocaine from a gang of blacks, robbing a billiard hall, running off with arms from the local clan’s cache. The film’s most striking scene comes when the two splash about on a deserted beach, firing off their freshly stolen Kalashnikovs into the sea in a nihilistic frenzy. There is also an extremely powerful moment, shortly after the first feud killings, when one of the men on the losing side bellows: ‘Facciamo i nostri morti’ (‘Let’s kill too’). Killing is always a powerful self-affirmation, however inoffensive the victim.

These scenes are persuasive vehicles for Saviano’s message, and throughout the film the ugliness and poverty of people’s homes, the clashing colours of their cheap clothes, the squalor of the public spaces, the absence of any human charm or grace (except in the Chinese sweatshop) amounts to a telling denunciation of Camorra subculture. Yet the film is disappointing. Often it has a perfunctory, box-ticking feel. The toxic-waste dealer and his young sidekick go to Venice to convince a major industrialist to use their services. Message: the rest of Italy cannot escape its responsibility. An elderly peasant woman gives the same men a basket of fruit which they know to be inedible because of the waste they have buried in the area. Message: both land and rural traditions have been polluted and corrupted.

But there is a deeper problem: since the success of the Camorra depends on the suppression of individuality or independence, and since the only people who rebel in the story – the two youngsters breaking out on their own – are mindless, selfish and themselves steeped in Camorra culture, the film has no one around whom it can build any pathos. There are any number of killings, but none that touches the viewer. To work as a drama that fully engaged its audience and offered a shred of optimism, the story would have needed a Don Peppino, or someone, anyone, who was in conflict with the Camorra and whose welfare we could care about. The film makes clear that Saviano’s book would not be so interesting without its author’s visceral, obsessive concern, and his consequent vulnerability.

Saviano himself is living under a death threat; a Camorra grease has said that there are plans to kill him before Christmas. Having earned himself a considerable amount of money, he now has no ordinary life. Like the bosses he describes, he must move under armed guard. Comparisons have been made with Salman Rushdie’s experience – not least by Rushdie himself – but the situation is only partly analogous. Rushdie was surprised and shocked by the response of extremists to a few pages in The Satanic Verses. He is unlikely to arouse such anger again, since the offending ideas were hardly central to his work.

But Saviano’s destiny seems to be tied to Naples and his opposition to the Camorra. Don Peppino, he writes, left the south to study in Rome and ‘should have stayed there’, far away from his home town of Casal di Principe. But, ‘like someone unable to shake off a habit, or a smell . . . or someone who constantly has the intense feeling that he ought to be doing something’, he came back. Saviano, too, comes across as a man who ‘has the intense feeling that he ought to be doing something’: something no one else can be trusted to do. One aspect of Gomorrah that has attracted criticism is the absence of any enthusiasm for – or indeed much discussion of – the magistrates and policemen who are daily at war with the Camorra, risking their lives for modest salaries. At one point, following an impressive analysis of the Camorra’s penetration of the cement industry, Saviano suggests that the imprisonment of Camorra bosses actually strengthens the organisation, bringing new blood, new ideas, better business, and elevating the arrested bosses to the mythical status that will inspire new generations of criminals.

If one accepts this notion of the limits of a policy of repression, the only prospect for change lies in the word, in the willingness to speak out, to encourage everyone to speak out, to break the Camorra’s control of the collective mind. The use of the word must be unerring, ‘a sentry, a witness, it must never stop pointing to the truth’, because to fall silent out of fear would be to hand victory to the Camorra. ‘The word used like this,’ Saviano says, ‘can only be silenced by killing.’ One must hope that these words will not be prophetic.