“Camorra power does not involve only the flesh, nor does it merely own everyone’s life. It also lays claim to the soul.”
I’ve read a fair amount of true-to-life-really-I-was-an-insider books on the Mafia. Some good, some bad, but most were written by guys who hand-to-God were the right hand man to So And So. Seriously, so close they wiped his ass and spoon fed him his morning oatmeal while he personally gunned down government agents and Superman.
I have a hard time believing these guys.
I get it. You were in the organization. Possibly overheard some order, not including the lunch orders, that were potentially important or dripping with murderous intent. Maybe you were the button man. But the details are where the stories got hung up.
Any good liar will tell you to go easy on the details if you want to be believed. Too many, and your story smacks of fiction. And these hoods always go heavy on the details.
Does it make for a better story? Oh hell yeah. I’m enjoying the ride, even if your telling me the Pinto we are seated in is a Porsche. Go for broke. Throw in enough intrigue and murder and get yourself on the New York Times bestseller list. I’m cool with it. Just don’t expect me to vouch for the authenticity.
However, there are exceptions. Gomorrah, by Roberto Saviano, is one of the few non-fiction accounts of a criminal empire where I believe the writer is telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Why you ask? Perhaps because he never puts himself in the role of Important Made Man. Doesn’t claim to be anyone important other than a “guy who was there”, and the way he describes it, anyone stuck in Naples is an active participant. So he doesn’t elevate himself to anyone of significance in the organization. He just wrote a tell all book because he felt it was a story that needed to be told, despite it’s publication endangering himself (he is in police protection).
But Gomorrah is not his story. It belongs to the Campania region of Italy, specifically the area surrounding Naples. And it’s not a story Hollywood begs to throw money at, although a feature film was made. Instead of a tale filled with glory and machismo, we get a detail oriented look at the Camorra, an organized crime network supposedly more violent and powerful than the Maria.
And man, are there ever details.
Ever wanted to know about Italian fashion but were afraid to ask? No? Me either. I could care less about high fashion and what runway models are wearing. Never gave it thought at all. And if I had been told it was run by gangsters a bit earlier, I might have been interested. Apparently it’s a fairly lucrative racket, with all the trappings of a gangster empire, racketeering, bribery, even cheep labor.
How about the history of the AK-47? Isn’t this a Russian history book? It’s obviously not, but this weapon plays an important role in maintaining power. Did you know the Camorra has long kept it’s supply of weapons safe inside military bases, where no one would think they were contraband?
And it wouldn’t be an Organized Crime story without their bread and butter, narcotics. The drug trade is very important to them, a constant source of income. One particular chapter spends a great deal of time outlining how they deal, and for fans of The Wire, its strangely familiar. Apparently everyone can deal in Naples, with nearly the exact same set-up as inner city American cities. Frightening.
Stories like this are how Gamorrah engages the reader. Saviano does an amazing job of not just outlining how the system works, but why. He gives each arm of their business, and forgive the pun, something concrete to symbolize it. The beauty of Italian clothing and the ugly conditions under which they are made. The mechanical precision and excellence of the AK-47, a weapon that rarely ever breaks down. The solid strength of cement, the cornerstone of many Italian buildings. The intricacies of the distribution system, and the importance of a home port. All of these facets get at least a chapter devoted to it, allowing the reader to become familiar with how the Camorra works, and has worked, for years.
However, all these details can provide problems. I was, and still am, rather unfamiliar with the geography of Italy. I can point to Rome or Milan on a map, but start rattling the names of towns off and I’m going to be lost. Thankfully, there was a map included at the beginning of book. Problem solved. But what wasn’t included, and really should have been, was some family, both actual and crime, trees. Names probably familiar in Italy were dropped all over the place, but I don’t know any of these people. And after a while they all started to blur together. It would have been easy to include something, and very helpful to readers such as myself.
All can be forgiven though with the reading of one particular chapter. I’m not sure if I’ve read a more compelling seventy pages in any non-fiction book. The chapter, “The Secondigliano War” is beautifully written, and brutal in it’s nature. Saviano’s poetic musings on the nature of war are punctuated by the real life onslaught of death.
“In war the attention threshold of all the senses is multiplied: it’s as if you perceive things more acutely, see into things more deeply, smell things more intensely. Even though all such cunning is for naught when the decision is made to kill. When they strike, they don’t worry about whom to save and whom to condemn.”
Saviano also takes some time to show, despite all the evidence of criminality, how impossible it is to truly fight organized crime. It’s a war that has been fought without end for decades, in Italy, the United States and countless other countries. As long as there is profit to be made there will be criminals. And as long as a few of them are smarter than others, they will organize.
“Lorenzo Diana is one of those rare men who knows that fighting the power of the Camorra calls for infinite patience, the sort of patience that starts over from the beginning, again and again, that pulls the threads of the economic knot one by one to arrive at the criminal head. Slowly, but with perseverance and anger, even when your attention wanes, even when it all seems futile, when you’re lost in a metamorphosis of criminal powers that change but are never defeated.”