Vesuvio brucia, “Vesuvius is burning”: The news was on everyone’s lips, and the scent in everyone’s nose, last summer in southern Italy. Yet no one was talking about volcanic activity. Rather the problem was arson: fires set not only on the wooded slopes of Vesuvius, a national forest reserve, but across all the region’s breathtaking pitches and yaws. The famed Amalfi Drive was posted with smoke warnings, and the stink would waft across a lunch out on the terraza. As for who was behind the madness, a threat to tourism, vineyards, mozzarella, and more, it could only be the Mafia. Only criminals could be so vicious, asserting their power by destroying public lands.
“Mafia,” however, isn’t the word they use in Naples. Rather it’s “Camorra,” pronounced Gomorrah, a deliberate echo of the wicked city in the Old Testament — and also the title Roberto Saviano chose for his harrowing, highly personal investigation into the crime syndicate in 2006. You could say the author was born to the task, a child of Secondigliano, the suburban base for some major Camorra “clans.” His research required a number of risks, including working incognito as a black-market stevedore; the result was a portrait of “System” life that, in outlining the connections between the Naples mob and criminal activity from Bolivia to Macao, ranks among the most significant works on the world’s underground economy and the damage it does. A critic might carp about the jarring shifts between personal material and secondary sources, or about the occasional lapses into hysteria. Still, the impact of Gomorrah was so powerful as to drive the author and his family into hiding for fear of retribution — even now, they live under police protection — and last summer around Naples, the book’s insights lingered as stubbornly as the smell of smoke.
Now Saviano has come out with his first novel, another steep descent into southern Italy’s underbelly: The Piranhas: The Boy Bosses of Naples. What most sets this work apart is the youth of its main players; none grow beyond their middle teens, over the course of the novel’s hellacious year or so, but from the first they’re savvy about outlaw ways: “nati imparati, born knowing how.” Such dual-language phrasings occur throughout, and while the US publisher must’ve insisted on English translation, the original text often does the same, presenting both the Neapolitan dialect and the schoolbook Italian. This device reveals the kids’ dissociation: They have hardly a word for their parents or teachers, but they’re always eager to talk with the neighborhood’s made men.
These boys waste little time getting on the mob payroll, “levarsi il fumo”: “raising the smoke”: peddling hashish. Swiftly, too, a few get busted, and the experience allows a boss to emerge. Sixteen, charismatic, this is Nicolas Fiorillo. To be sure, he’s also got an alias, a name he prefers, as do all his homies in the paranza. This latter term — rhyming with the text’s title — referred originally to a small fishing fleet, but in the Camorra it’s become almost an honorific, designating a youth gang of some power and reach. In the paranzaNicolas creates, they call him ’o Maraja, in part after a nearby dance club, but largely in recognition of his leadership.
Maraja could be part piranha, voracious, violent, and unrelenting. “If you’re from lower Naples,” he claims, “you have to go out and fight for respect.” Respect, or its distorted image, is his goal from the first — the novel’s opening scene is one of teenage humiliation, about as disgusting as can be imagined. Still, after that the boy proves more than a monster, cannier and more articulate than any of his pals. He even gives the one teacher he respects a couple pages of his personal credo. This, however, reads like a manifesto for Thug Life (“There are the fuckers and the fucked, and nothing more.”), and outside of school, Maraja moves speedily from picking the boss’s brain to picking up a gun. He spearheads the gang’s first robberies and, with ruthless follow-through, commits the first murder: an African day laborer, gunned down just for practice. In time he has a crew of about ten. Only two, Drago and Drone, are developed beyond conversational tics, but the story of the group proves gripping in its breakneck ferocity.
As in his earlier books, Saviano spares no detail. While in Gomorrah at least the ugly business was confined largely to the city’s periphery, these killer children prowl the ancient Naples centro, a UNESCO Heritage site. One hair-raising scene sets Maraja chasing another kid through the heart of downtown, both of them on scooters and the weather acting up:
Aucelluzzo… was already gone, swallowed by the rain…, taking the curve a recchia ’n terra, as the saying went, “one ear to the ground,” whizzing off as if there were no traffic, as if that traffic weren’t being made crazier by the cloudburst.
The chase puts a reader on the edge of his seat, and such pleasures are typical of the novel. Unlike many such scenes, though, this one doesn’t end in bloodshed. Rather the boys pursue each other as part of a remarkably intricate dance, the goal of which is to forge an alliance between the youthful paranzaand an adult clan. Such machinations also make for fascination; the subtlety with which both the young and old evade the law even feels comic at times. At one point, Maraja and his boys must visit the city zoo after midnight, in order to pick up the guns their new partners have delivered and hidden in the penguin cage. There’s fun to be had, too, in the distortions of American culture. Initiates into the paranzadon’t need Maraja to tell them its creed: “The first rule about Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club.”
Yet smart mouths and shoot-’em-ups only go so far; Piranhas, for all its vivid flashes, never illuminates the characters at its center. Defining relationships, in particular between the sociopathic Nicolas and his law-abiding parents, are left sketchy; Mamma e Papà each have an early moment onstage, rather pro-forma, and then disappear. The mother’s indifference is especially puzzling, particularly for anyone familiar with Neapolitan moms — but the larger problem is how all the women here are left stick figures. There’s a calculating sister, and a well-educated cousin, but neither is developed beyond a page or so. Ever the diligent reporter, Saviano gets the wardrobe right, but he fails to go beneath the surface. Instead, he offers windy authorial filler on “the crème de la crème of Camorra society…they struck many of the same poses as the dynasties covered in the popular magazines.”
Saviano hasn’t shaken his tendency toward the overripe in his language, and this weakens both smaller elements and larger. A number of the dual-language passages seem merely showy, and the central narrative itself feels overwrought. A paranzasuch as this is a familiar Neapolitan affliction; the local press even has its own name for them, “babygangs.” But those same reports always end in a police crackdown. Saviano’s novel itself makes mention of teens either doing time or turning state’s evidence, after their gangs collapsed. Thus his novel’s emphasis on Maraja’s expanding power — right through a tragic ending that promises more bloodshed to come — distorts the facts of city life for the sake of melodrama.
Still, even if this boy’s story leaves out his inevitable downfall, if it doesn’t merit the flourishes of apocalyptic rhetoric and handles its women characters clumsily, Piranhas stands out for its chilling and convincing depiction of a social fabric near the breaking point. Like his great journalism, Saviano’s attempt at fiction matters not for what it tells us about any individual piranha, but for how it sketches the movement of the entire school. A society that’s nothing but fuckers and fucked will do anything for dominance, even set fire to the rare forests on the slopes of Vesuvius. Thus Saviano remains at work, wherever he’s hiding from the fuckers; in a Guardian essay this August, he insisted on the importance of stories that tell the whole truth about the Mafia. “All it takes,” he writes, “is a book, a television programme, a film to shed light…this is all it takes to trigger a revolution.”