Swans Commentary » swans.com January 30, 2012  



Naples: Greeks, Romans, And Hitmen


by Peter Byrne


Book Reviews



Lewis, Norman: Naples '44, An Intelligence Officer in the Italian Labyrinth 2002, Eland, ISBN 0-907871-72-0, 189 pages.

Saviano, Robert: Gomorrah, Italy's Other Mafia, translated from the Italian by Virginia Jewiss, 2007, Pan Books, ISBN 978-0-330-45099-7, 301 pages.


"The new sindacos, the mayors who have been appointed by AMG, the Allied Military Government of Occupied Territory, to replace the old Fascist podestàs, are stated in the main to be members of the criminal Camorra." 1944, page 70, Naples '44.

"According to a pentito in the 2004 DDA investigation, 50 percent of the shops in Naples alone are actually run by the Camorra." 2006, page 50, Gomorrah.


(Swans - January 30, 2012)   There are maps in both these books showing the Naples hinterland. In the sixty years that separate the two accounts the area has remained in the hands of the Camorra, the Neapolitan Mafia-like organization. The American gangster Vito Genovese, a figure of power in the Allied military government in 1944, laid the groundwork for what is now the most extensive criminal operation in the world. The British travel writer Norman Lewis described the situation in 1944. The invading Allied forces ignored, used, or collaborated with organized crime of the day. In 2007 the Neapolitan-born journalist Roberto Saviano tells how the Camorra, given a fresh start after WWII, has become a world economic power.

Lewis, who died at ninety-five in 2003, had for all his brilliance and readability the travel writer's endemic flaw. He comes and he goes. No matter what his sympathy might be for the people under observation, they remain specimens in a zoo. Their country can be attaching, but it remains exotic, even in wartime squalor. It's a lovable zoo. Lewis came to Southern Italy in September 1943 from duty in North Africa. He belonged to the Field Security Service of the British Army. In October 1944 he was moved on to duty with the Russians. Departing, he wrote, "Were I given the chance to be born again, Italy would be the country of my choice."

Naples '44 is cast in diary form. However, it wasn't finished until 1978. The long interval allowed the mood to surface of a fireside chat with granddad. He tells us that those were the days, harrying but full of fun in retrospect. Lewis, something of a maverick at home, is never complacent about British capability. He sees his compatriots as cautious realists, enlivened by eccentricity, and in the main decent despite the occasional black sheep. He shares an attitude of even the best British writers about WWII. American military leadership in Europe was clumsy and naive. In the invasion of Italy, it was wasteful. predatory, and incompetent. The unspoken refrain here of course is that we Brits did empire better than the Yanks are going to do it.

The effectiveness of Naples '44 comes from its travel writer's limitations. Lewis imparts a military rigor to his prose that separates him from the chaos he's describing. His detachment suggests an absence of bias. His style, which never falters, puts Naples and its hinterland into a frame that he and the reader can deal with, even dominate. The slight condescension with its whiff of moral superiority is neutralized by the excellence of the writing. Who has better pictured the eruption of Vesuvius on March 19, 1944? (page 93):

Today Vesuvius erupted. It was the most majestic and terrible sight I have ever seen, or ever expect to see. The smoke from the crater slowly built up into a great bulging shape having all the appearances of solidity. It swelled and expanded so slowly that there was no sign of movement in the cloud which, by evening, must have risen thirty or forty thousand feet into the sky, and measured many miles across.

The shape of the eruption that obliterated Pompeii reminded Pliny of a pine tree, and he probably stood here at Posillipo across the bay, where I was standing now and where Nelson and Emma Hamilton stood to view the eruption of their day, and the shape was indeed like that of a many-branching tree. What took one by surprise about Pliny's pine was that it was absolutely motionless, not quite painted -- because it was three dimensional -- but moulded on the sky; an utterly still, and utterly menacing shape. This pine too, trailed uncharacteristically a little tropical liana of heavy ash, which fell earthwards here and there from its branches in imperceptible motion.

At night the lava streams began to trickle down the mountain's slopes. By day the spectacle was calm but now the eruption showed a terrible vivacity. Fiery symbols were scrawled across the water of the bay, and periodically the crater discharged mines of serpents into a sky which was the deepest of blood reds and pulsating everywhere with lightning reflections.

The volcano was not the only worry of Neapolitans at the time. The city was starving, the black market raging, morning-to-night survival far outweighed morality in the civic scales. These were the days portrayed by Curzio Malaparte's The Skin and John Horne Burns's The Gallery, days familiar from the Neorealist movies like Roberto Rossellini's Paisan and Vittorio di Sica's Shoeshine. In short these were the days when all the Naples stereotypes were being reformulated or confirmed.

Lewis made his contribution. His Neapolitans are riven by superstition and fatalism, likable but unreliable, spontaneous and bold, but adept at occult scheming that's inconceivable for an out-in-the-open Anglo-Saxon. Lewis pictures himself standing aloof, doing his duty as best he can, forgetting absolutes and "muddling through," decency his watchword, in line with his own national stereotype. He obeyed Allied orders to leave the Camorra to the Italian authorities. These authorities, through Mafia quick thinking and Allied collusion, were mainly Camorra affiliates.

Roberto Saviano, no travel writer, was born in 1979 in Naples and brought up in the "Camorra corridor" that Lewis had marked on his map with trepidation in 1944. Saviano's connection with place and people is visceral and inescapable. At the end of Gomorrah, his book that would earn him a condemnation to death by the Camorra and a life under police protection, he can't not repeat his determination that's close to an obsession (page 300):

I was born in the land of the Camorra, in the territory with the most homicides in Europe, where savagery is interwoven with commerce, where nothing has value except what generates power. Where everything has the taste of a final battle. It seemed impossible to have a moment of peace, not to live constantly in a war where every gesture is a surrender, where every necessity is transformed into weakness, where everything has to be fought for tooth and nail. In the land of the Camorra, opposing the clans is not a class struggle, an affirmation of a right, or a re-appropriation of one's civic duty. It's not the realization of one's honor or the preservation of one's pride. It's something more basic, more ferociously carnal. In the lands of the Camorra, knowing the clans' mechanisms for success, their modes of extraction, their investments, means understanding how everything works today everywhere, not merely here. To set oneself against the clans becomes a war of survival, as if existence itself -- the food you eat, the lips you kiss, the music you listen to, the pages you read -- were merely a way to survive, not the meaning of life. Knowing is thus no longer a sign of moral engagement.

Knowing -- understanding -- becomes a necessity. The only necessity if you want to consider yourself worthy of breathing.

A visual representation of this "land of the Camorra" became available in 2008, two years after Saviano published his book. This was Matteo Garrone's movie Gomorrah filmed in the corridor itself, mainly in the town of Scampia north of Naples. After seeing the movie, there's no place for the usual film buff discussion about whether it adequately told the story of the book. The Camorra wouldn't have allowed a movie to be made of the book in its own backyard.

What Garrone gives us is an excellent crime film, better than most because some of its actors are locals only one step from the criminals they depict. The authentic settings put a hard edge on the action. Garrone shot in the landscape that Camorra activity condemns people to live in, the projects that are battlefields of clan warfare and the toxic garbage dump that it has made of Southern Italy. This isn't and doesn't try to be the film of the book. Saviano is a writer whose emotions mark every page, but his Gormorra also embodies an analysis, loosely organized though it may be. It reveals the "mechanisms" of the Camorra, how this machine of organized criminality works. That's why the clan chiefs could ignore a crime movie but felt that Saviano's dissection of their system called for a death sentence.

For "system," he assures us, is the right word. Nobody among the bosses says "Camorra." They laugh the term off as old fashioned. They, their underlings and a good part of the Campania region of Italy are part of the "System." Saviano's examination of it begins in the port of Naples. A million and a half tons of imports are registered there each year with another million tons entering off the record. Sixty percent of arriving goods avoids official custom inspection. Fifty thousand shipments are contraband. These invisible imports have a parallel in the huge amount of undocumented capital at the disposition of the Camorra in the Naples hinterland.

The merchandise entering the port of Naples is almost entirely Chinese. While other Europeans grumble about immigrants, the Camorra welcomes them to the System. The Chinese are free to exploit each other in sweatshops as long as they manufacture only the cheapest garments. The clans simply ignore them like so many more plastic bags of rubbish in the streets until they attempt to graduate to high fashion. At that point they are eliminated without mercy. One of the surprises of Gomorrah is the fact that much of the world's haute couture originates in Camorra land. The System helps with loans and cheap labor, furnishing, as it were, the infrastructure. Saviano tells the story of a talented local tailor, scraping along on a pittance, who is shocked to see Angelina Jolie on TV wearing his dress at a Hollywood award ceremony. The System even respects the last wishes of the Chinese. When they die it returns their frozen bodies to the Celestial Empire for burial at a reasonable fee.

Globalism is an integral part of free enterprise as practiced by the System. Saviano had this in mind when he spoke of "understanding how everything works today everywhere, not merely here." The roots of Camorra internationalism go back to the 1950s when capital from afar funded corridor workshops. They operated without taxation, permits, contracts, or restrictive working conditions. The situation has now become such that fifty thousand pairs of jeans from Bangladesh can unload illegally in the port and, marked "Made in Italy," be on sale within a week in France or Germany. The Camorra doesn't have to impose its brands on the market by coercion in Cosa Nostra style. Not only does it own shopping centers world wide but its prices are actually the lowest. Deal-makers solicit the Camorra, not vice versa. Saviano visited remote Aberdeen in Scotland where laundered System money had created a minor boom and improved restaurant menus.

The Spanish drug trade has been in the hands of the Neapolitan Camorra for a generation. It establishes the supply route from South American to Spain where it prepares the product for distribution in Europe. Money laundering and re-investment are international by definition, touching dozens of countries. The Naples hinterland isn't Eurocentric and collaborates with organized criminal groups wherever they exist.

The downside, so to speak, of the System's internationalism is the physical degradation of Camorra land. The bosses build sumptuous villa-fortresses complete with escape tunnels and underground bunkers. They count on support from their fief in times of siege, which doesn't come so much from law enforcement as from inter-System warfare. All around these modern castles is urban desolation. In fact one of the largest System moneymakers has been the shifting of waste, much of it toxic, from Northern Italian cities and factories to the South, which has become a vast unregulated dumping ground. Again, the Camorra wins the business "fairly" by offering industry the best price, made possible by working outside the law.

The freedom of free enterprise led the System to innovate on the Mafia model. Drug habits have changed, and 90 percent of cocaine users are now workers or students more in need of a pick-me-up on the job than a spine-shaking thrill. "Liberalization" of distribution was called for and the Camorra responded with a laissez-faire bound forward. The Mafia sold huge lots of drugs and controlled where and how they would be sold. The Camorra made its supply available to anyone at all in lesser quantities and didn't stipulate how the buyer should retail the drug. Consumption leaped as small businessmen deployed their talents.

The Camorra has adopted a federal structure. The clans aren't now aligned in pacts to form a large cumbersome body. Nor do they any longer need constant political protection as the Mafia does. In fact they consider the whole Cosa Nostra model archaic. The Sicilian Mafia has been obsessed with creating an anti-state. The new Camorra gets along with the state and operates on the entrepreneurial level like other businessmen. Through flexibility it achieves speed, essential to moving capital, creating and liquidating companies and investing in real estate all over the planet.

Cheap labor and total Camorra control made Secondigliano in the Naples hinterland a drug capital. But the new federalism of the System also made it the scene of the most violent clan war ever. By letting their subordinates strike out on their own without supervision, the bosses were creating challenges to their own power. An affiliate who by his commercial acumen got a good drug business going felt he should bow to no one. The feud resulted in over sixty murders in 2004-5. In its course opponents talked about "doing a piece." The expression came from the sweatshops and piecework. Killing someone was as simple as putting a shirt or blouse together quickly for a set price.

What else goes on in Camorra heads? Strangely, they think a lot about justice. They see it as anything that advances their interests. Whatever or whoever obstructs them is wrong, unjust. They don't feel they are in breach of Christianity. By acting for the good of the clan, members believe they are pursuing the Christian good, even by murder. They think of life, says Saviano, as a place where you risk losing everything so as to win it all. A commercially astute clan boss is "the new model of the System entrepreneur, the image of the new bourgeoisie, liberated of every constraint, motivated by the absolute desire to dominate every corner of the market and to have a hand in everything."

Good writing finds a balance between form and envisaged reality. Norman Lewis in Naples '44 keeps what's real from touching us deeply by his writerly discipline, his carefully maintained distance, his style. Robert Saviano's Gomorrah is patchy, part subjective poetry, part documentary, personal though full of numbers, taking itself in stretches for a novel, with essays hanging on the end like afterthoughts. But it jolts the reader because the author is putting his life on the line. His book is his life. Like the bosses, he too risks everything. But his object is not to win all; it's simply to stand up and say no. He's the anti-System.


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Published January 30, 2012