Gomorrah

Italian journalist Roberto Saviano doesn't hide his agenda in this, his first book -- a passionate indictment of organized crime's stranglehold on his native Naples and its surrounding province of Campania. The fury of his prose sometimes leads him into excess, but the goal is always clear: to name names, bear witness, and celebrate the few heroes who've emerged in the ongoing struggle against the Camorra, Campania's answer to the Sicilian Mafia and the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta. A bestseller in Europe, Saviano's portrait of this modern "Gomorrah" encompasses street-level hustlers and high-living bosses, and the facts, such as can be recorded, suggest a massive underground economy as corrupt as any third-world kleptocracy, and with leaders just as violent. While American tourists enjoy lounging under the Tuscan sun, we might consider that it's very much at the expense of southern Italians who are living on top of toxic waste transported from the North.

Forget everything you think you know about Italian crime from The Godfather and its progeny. The style of the present-day Camorra takes it cue from latter-day Hollywood: Think Al Pacino's coked-up and crazed performance in Scarface rather than his soberly calculating Michael Corleone. In Saviano's telling, the look is now more a combination of Matrix-chic with hip-hop bling, and there's the added presence of gangster women, all tricked out like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. More important, the Camorra is far more powerful than the old-school mobsters, and their organization is nothing like the neat flowcharts familiar from FBI Mafia briefings, mapping a clear hierarchy, a select membership of made men, and a ironclad code of behavior. The Camorra, in contrast, has more in common with primitive tribes -- it's a loose system of competing clans all with overlapping territories and rival economic interests. And they employ just about anyone and everyone -- which is their real source of power, since no one wants to undermine the only game in town.

In the historically impoverished South, legitimate work has always been hard to come by, and the once-rural economy collapsed long ago. To be sure, there's factory work these days, especially in the garment industry, but Saviano's description of these unregulated sweatshops is devastating. Owned by clan families, these manufacturers stay off the charts in every regard: using contraband fabrics from overseas, employing unorganized labor, and avoiding all tax consequences, they supply the fashionable North and beyond with much of its designer product, all labeled "made in Italy." It's a far more sophisticated -- and lucrative- scam than the postwar cigarette smuggling by which many Camoristas made their bones.

Saviano develops his own bona fides by hanging out at the margins of the underworld, scooting around Naples and its northern suburban wasteland on his Vespa. He witnesses the aftermath of clan murders; he takes a temporary job unloading contraband at the port; and he finds himself waist-deep in the illegally dumped toxic sludge that's covering more and more of his native soil. After underground factories and street-level drug dealing, the main business of the clans is -- yes, Sopranos fans -- cement and waste, the two products that best define the Camorra. First, they buy up whatever available land they can find, hire young drivers to dump the often-hazardous trash from the North, and then use their own construction crews to cement over the top. But it doesn't stop there: Saviano describes the burgeoning suburban housing developments built on these sites: concrete structures at rock-bottom prices. The South threatens to become one big Love Canal.

In Saviano's view, Camorra infighting captures the attention of authorities when it spills the blood of ordinary people, which happens far more often than old-fashioned mob codes allowed. Competing clans, with AK-47s as the weapon of choice, wipe each other out in plain view, regardless of who's standing nearby, and they don't stop with members but kill parents, wives, and children as well. According to Saviano, Campania leads Europe in murders, and among the dead is Don Peppino Diana, one of the real heroes of this mostly depressing narrative. Not content with simply killing this courageous, outspoken priest, the clan then vilified him in a newspaper they owned, hoping to prevent his becoming a symbol of struggle. (They failed: A foster children's center in his memory now stands on the site of a lavish villa seized from the Casalesi clan.) A brave young schoolteacher who testified against a clan member in a murder trial, which led to a conviction, is luckily still alive, but she was ostracized by her community. The code of silence prevails in Campania, and those who break it end up leaving, which is what everyone recommends Saviano to do throughout his agonizing journeys.

And now he has. According to the latest news, Saviano is a man without a country. It's easy to see why. The countless names mentioned here will mean little to American readers, but if his portraits of major Camorra members are accurate -- and there's no reason to believe they aren't -- then he's identified some scary characters, many with those silly nicknames that we all too often find perversely amusing. But Saviano has a long memory and can't forget the time his father, a doctor working on an ambulance, was beaten bloody for mending a patient the clan wanted dead. The arm of this ambitious mob extends deep into the culture, and into local politics. Time after time, the national government has dissolved southern town councils, who dole out contracts to the clans and turn their heads from their worst offenses. If nothing else, Saviano hopes his book will bring to the Camorra the kind of attention focused on the Mafia -- more journalists, more government intervention, more international awareness.

The evidence is here, even if Saviano himself gets in the way sometimes: his hard-boiled prose is too often overcooked. Describing the "rubbish" of southern Italy, Saviano writes that it's "like a pregnant belly, but the fetus never grows; it aborts money, then immediately becomes pregnant again, only to abort and conceive again, to the point where the body is ruined, the arteries clogged, the lungs filled, the synapses destroyed." But the phone transcripts, trial testimony, and government records don't exaggerate. There's a crisis in Campania, and Saviano has done a marvelous job: he's survived to tell the truth.

April 23: " 'A job,' the woman repeated again, smiling, as if I hadn't heard her. 'Would you like one?' "

Kenneth Calhoun (Black Moon) and Lysely Tenorio (Monstress) of the Discover Great New Writers program on B-movies, heritage, and finales.

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