Thursday, May 7, 2009

My Mafia, Myself

"You carry on, do what you have to do - the rest is worthless. Because the threat isn't always a bullet between the eyes ... They take you slowly, one layer at a time, till you find yourself naked and alone and you start believing you're fighting something that does not exist ..."
by Roberto Saviano (Picador, 2008) 301 pages

This book was made into a gritty, very compelling film which premiered at TIFF last year. Forget the cinematic glamor of The Godfather film or the pulpy juiciness of the novel or the profane wittiness of Goodfellas, this is the real deal – the true sordidness of organized crime in southern Italy and Europe, the so-called “ghetto of Europe”. One reading should pretty well eradicate the mafia-groupie in all of us.

There is a not so secret society amongst Italians of those who are obsessed with stories about the mafia. We are mesmerized whenever we see The Godfather on TV and probably own the DVD. We have seen it innumerable times. We've even sat through Godfather III. We are hooked on The Sopranos and actually suffered a sort of withdrawal when the series ended. We have seen all the films on crime families and criminals: Goodfellas (1990), Scarface (1983), History of Violence (2005), Casino (1995), On the Waterfront (1954), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Road to Perdition (2002), The Untouchables (1987). I am a member of such a society.

So, suffice it to say, I was immediately interested in this book. The title is a brilliant play on the words Camorra (a mafia-like society in the region of Naples) and Gomorrah (as in the biblical city in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah). Saviano is mesmerizing as he takes us into a inferno like pit of murder, drug trafficking, political assassinations, black market manufacturing, torture and criminal activity in Naples and its environs. The Camorra has killed more people than the Sicilian Mafia, the 'Ndrangheta, the Russian Mafia ... more than the IRA in Ireland, the Red Brigades in Italy, the ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna) in Spain.

The word Mafia is not used here in this context … in the area of Naples it is know as La Camorra and members are referred to as Camorristi, also known as clan members. Saviano details many aspects of the clans’ power and influence in various aspects of Italian society: the black market luxury garment industry, the drug trade, the purchase of weapons (primarily the Kalashnikov rifle and the "cult" like reverence it inspires), the role of women (many are much more active participants than you think); the role of “submarines” in paying off Camorrista family members.

Roberto Saviano is from Casal di Principe which he describes as "the capital of criminal entrepreneurial power" with some intriguing combination of shame or pride depending on the situation he finds himself in. He says that compared to his hometown Corleone is Disneyland.

Saviano explains in detail how the clans work: for instance, the drug trade of the Paolo Di Lauro clan employs thousands who have no idea whom they truly work for aside from the general name of the clan. Each clan members’ knowledge is limited so even if questioned by police or foe they do not know the hierarchy or how the flow chart of power is structured.

Some scenarios he relates: Pasquale, a skilled tailor labours in a Camorra controlled black market garment factory creating knock off luxury garments. One day, he sees on TV that a particularly beautiful garment prepared for a famous couture fashion house is being worn by Angelina Jolie at the Oscars. This both angers and excites him because even though he crafted the garment he will never be acknowledged for the creation. Pasquale is eventually driven from the industry (because he dared to share his skills with a Chinese-born competitor working in his region for a fee and threatening the Camorra's hold on the market) and instead becomes a truck driver to save his neck.

When the clans (what we would think of as Mafia families) want to test a new batch of heroin to determine how good it is and whether it will kill anyone they test them on "Visitors". These are hard core heroin addicts who are willing to risk death for a free hit. Saviano tells an absolutely horrifying story of witnessing one such trial on the streets where the dealer and everyone else around the addict fear that the heroin has killed him. The man is revived by his weeping addict girlfriend in a most unusual manner which I will leave to you to discover.

He details the logic of retribution of the clans against perceived wrongs and how all are vulnerable:
"... the map of an individual is drawn through his acquaintances, relatives, even his possessions. A map on which messages can be written. The most terrible messages. Punishment is necessary. if someone goes unpunished, it might legitimize new betrayals or schisms."

The clans' tentacles are long and pervasive. "Submarines", such as the cited Don Ciro, are low level money men who pay monthly allowances to clan affiliates who have been loyal and have relations in prison. These usually go to wives or girlfriends with children by Camorristi, but some men as well - always paid to the men's mothers to avoid humiliation of and abuse from the men.

The nicknames of the Camorristi will amuse and/or puzzle: Perhaps the Camorrista resembles a movie star who plays a role on TV (Zorro) or the movies (Rambo) or the son of a Libyan dictator (Ghaddafi). Perhaps he has attributes like a certain animal: lione (lion), 'o lupo (wolf) or i capitoni (the eels) or certain physical or mental attributes: 'o milionario (the millionaire), bello (beautiful one), 'o pazzo (the crazy one), capelli bianchi (white hair), 'o nano (the dwarf) and then there are the more bizarre untranslatable names: scipp scipp, quaglia quaglia, zig zag.

And forget about the myth that organized crime does not harm women or children. Saviano details scenario after scenario in which women are shot in the face, tortured for information on rival clans, corpses dumped and burned in their cars, for real or perceived transgressions. They might be active participants in the clan, suspected girlfriends of Camorristi, or merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. Young boys are enlisted as assassins, as drug mules, as couriers of information, as decoys meant to lure out real targets, as horrifyingly graphic examples of how not to challenge the clans’ authority. This is a world where priests like Don Peppino are shot in the face for their defiance of the clans.

For many women marrying a Camorrista is like "receiving a loan or acquiring capital". You have connected with a winner, someone ambitious and aggressive and able to make money for you. In the twisted logic of this scenario, this is someone who is not a failure.

In Gomorrah, Saviano consciously emulates the filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini who, on November 14, 1974, lashed out against the Democratic-Christian political regime in Italy and was asking questions on the front page of Italy’s most influential newspaper, Corriere della Sera about organized crime, political protection and the government's collusion. The article began, "Io so (I know)..." and Pasolini listed all he suspected but could not prove.

In the chapter "Cement", Saviano makes a lonely pilgrimage to Pasolini's grave in Casarsa and murmurs aloud his own 21st c. version of "I know" before his tomb. He sees the corruption and rot of the Camorra's involvement in the construction industry and cannot look at a building without imagining the work and blood that went into it:
"I know how economics originate and where their smells come from ... the proofs are irrefutable because they are partial, recorded with my eyes ... And so I tell. About these truths."

He knows that before these construction magnates turned themselves into managers, financial sharks, newspaper owners "before all this and under all this lies cement, subcontractors ... vans crammed with men who work all night and disappear in the morning, rotten scaffolding and bogus insurance".

For me the most painful story is that of his father's fate. A trained doctor, as a youth he rode with paramedics in ambulances and encountered many victims of the Camorristi when called to emergencies. The unofficial medical policy was not to intervene if one encountered a still living casualty because chances were that the Camorristi would hijack the ambulance and finish off the job, usually with the paramedics and doctors aboard, often killing them as well. On one such encounter he came across an eighteen year shot in the chest - his nursing colleagues begged him not to intervene but he could not watch the boy die so he assisted him and he survived. That night, Camorristi broke into the doctor's home and beat him so badly he was not able to resurface for two months.

Unfortunately, his father learned his lesson - when he had his own son Roberto (the author of this book), this educated man taught the boy to shoot with the following piece of wisdom:
"Robbe' what do you call a man who has a pistol and no college degree?"
"A shit with a pistol."
"Good. What do you call a man with a college degree and no pistol?"
"A shit with a degree."
"Good. What do you call a man with a degree and a pistol?"
"A man, Papa."

An extraordinary book by an extraordinary man.


Gaia said...

it is indeed a good movie. i haven't read the novel yet, but it should be noted that he is paying dearly for uncovering this truth - he lives undercover, protected by bodyguards 24/7, unable to rent apartments because landlord do not want to deal with the responsibility, unable to enjoy time with family and friends, receiving constant death threats... he gave up his life to uncover the truth.

A Lit Chick said...

Truly a brave, exceptional man, I could have written a thousand words more on the indelible images that he conjured up with this book.