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Roberto Saviano, Gomorra and the Camorra

The gritty journalistic investigation into one of the world’s largest mafia organisations.

Roberto Saviano is one of the bravest writers alive today. His book, Gomorra, a graphic expose of one of the largest criminal organizations in the world, the Camorra of Napoli, has sent him into hiding with death threats he has every reason to take seriously.

The title of Gomorra alone is enough to let us know where he’s taking us with his firsthand investigation into the Napoli underworld. All the romantic images of the Italian mafia conjured up by Hollywood fade as we wade through page after page of violence, brutality and desperation.

But though Saviano has every intention of laying bare the horror of life in the northern neighbourhoods of Napoli, his writing in Gomorra frequently takes on a poetic tone. Even as he explains in painstaking detail the underground business of imitation clothing as good as the brands themselves, he observes:

“The clothes come from here. This pit. All merchandise has an obscure origin. It’s the law of capitalism. But to see the pit, to have it in front of you, gives a strange feeling. An anxious weight. Like having the truth in your stomach.”

In fact, we learn that many of us have some clothes in our cupboards produced by the Camorra in the northern wastelands of Napoli, the clan owning retail outlets around the world. The competition with China is intense and yet complementary as materials arrive from Asia into the vast port and are never seen by customs.

More traditional merchandise is the cocaine and heroin that have long been the mainstay of the earnings for the Camorra and Saviano witnesses how they determine the toxicity of new batches. Free samples are offered in the dead of night in a plaza where the police never go and junkies travel for hours to be there. They know they’re human guinea pigs, however and it takes a great deal of grumbling before one of them gives into his addiction and tries the dose. He dies painfully and Saviano, who witnesses the scene, suddenly becomes the object of retribution by the ‘Visitors’ – a name of zombies from a movie from the 80’s – and escapes by the skin of his teeth.

But Gomorra is not about Robert Saviano. Much as the reader burns to know how he managed to infiltrate so successfully the mafia neighbourhoods, what risks he ran, how he felt and what he expected to come of his book exposing so many key players, it seems as though Saviano had little interest in writing about himself. Perhaps it’s because the cartels he describes are making so many billions of euros each year, killing thousands, terrorizing so many more, bringing the very infrastructure of his city to its knees, that Saviano keeps himself out of the picture for much of the book.

His accounts of the economic and military operations, for instance, is furiously methodical. He lists the names of the people concerned in entire paragraphs simply because no one else has done it before. The operations of the Camorra are run with impunity and the police operations against them account for but a small loss in their annual revenue. They’ve infiltrated all levels of the local authorities and run the clothing, construction, retail, contraband and weapons businesses.

Saviano spells out a very different picture of the mafia than we’ve come to expect. We learn how the big bosses are so persecuted by rival gangs and eventual police prosecution that they’ve obliged to live like prisoners in hiding, running their operations from a dingy basement somewhere. Yet when they’re apprehended, the suspected informant is usually found hours after mutilated in more ways than we care to repeat here.

Saviano describes the tortures in details though. At times he simply repeats the same sentence over and over again until the brutality of the thugs sinks in. He can’t get the images of the brutality out of his mind and the entire book is an expression of the rage he feels. Even when he sees concrete all over Italy, he can’t help but think of the tunnels where immigrant workers in the south die as they dig out the lime.

Perhaps the key point of Gomorra is to explain that in difference to Cosa Nostra of Sicily which perhaps saw itself as an anti-State, the Camorra see themselves simply as businesspeople. Ultimately, the way they run their businesses isn’t all that different from any multi-national, only that they back theirs up on the street level with Kalashnikovs. But they have no interest in challenging the State, only infiltrating it to promote their own economic activities.

Gomorra is not an easy read. It’s revelatory, shocking and a piece of consummate journalism but isn’t the kind of book you take to bed with you. The film may be easier to digest and the publicity surrounding it is probably what made Saviano in his own words, a ‘dead man walking’, following the slang of his hometown.

Roberto Saviano wrote Gomorra before he even hit 30 and now the most influential mafia in the Western world wants his head. How many writers would put pen to paper knowing that their lives would be under threat if they told what they knew? Saviano is an example of a man who has sacrificed all he had to tell the truth. We take our hats off to him.