Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano

Some years ago I stood on a pier near Naples and admired a brand new pleasure port under construction. The Neapolitan friend I was with soon put me right. ‘It’s the Camorra,’ he said. ‘Every major construction project is funded by them.’ I thought he was being ironic, but the point is made relentlessly in Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah: a proper understanding of the role played by the Camorra (and the Mafia and other criminal organisations) must include a critical analysis of the organisation’s role in the economy and the state, and indeed of the role of state violence and neo-liberalism. It is necessary, in fact, to understand the criminal anti-state as a structural element of the state itself. If, as Saviano points out a huge segment of the cement, building, waste-disposal and garment industries are supplied, dominated or owned by the Camorra, the inescapable conclusion is that the Camorra is as necessary to the economy of Italy as the banking system is to the neo-liberal economy.

I suspect this has been true for a very long time indeed – there is a story, told if I remember rightly in Eric Newby’s On The Shores Of the Mediterranean1, that sometime in the fifties the Neapolitan smugglers went on strike against a customs crackdown and the city quickly ground to a halt until a compromise was negotiated. It has certainly been so in Sicily, where the development of the Mafia as a capitalist entity coincides with the development of the nineteenth century lemon export trade2.

The Camorra has been particularly good at adapting to changes in the economy. The Di Lauro clan, for example, liberalised the drug trade, introducing a kind of Thatcherite ‘ownership society’, by allowing ordinary people to invest quite small amounts in the purchase of drugs, thereby giving them a share in the profits and, at the same time, giving the clan access to a vast quantity of capital much as a bank uses depositors money or a company capitalises itself by issuing shares. ‘These areas,’ Saviano writes, speaking of the clan-dominated suburbs of Naples, ‘produce an exponential wealth, of which they only see the distant shimmer. But none of this gets reported. Media coverage is only concerned with the aesthetics of the Neapolitan slums’. And the figures advanced by Saviano are staggering. The port of Naples handles 1.6 million tons of Chinese produce annually, of which 60% comes and goes without trace. 50,000 shipments annually through the port are contraband. 70% of the textile produce of China comes through Naples, even though only 20% is visible for tax purposes. 50% of the shops in Naples alone are owned by the Camorra, and so on. As Saviano says, ‘The criminal organization coincides directly with the economy, and the dialectic of commerce is the framework of the clans.’

However, it is not enough to think of the Camorra as kind of parallel economy. It is necessary to consider the social role played by ‘the system’ as they themselves call it, in the daily life of one of the most impoverished areas of Europe. One does not say I belong to The Camorra, but rather I belong to ‘o sistema. The Camorra is not simply a criminal group that extorts protection money, kills people, runs prostitutes, imports and sells drugs and launders the profits therefrom; rather it is an entire system of living, or at least surviving. It is a philosophical position, a way of life, an ethical system as integral to the clan areas as capitalism is to western democracy. Like capitalism it has its brutality and its casualties as well as its winners. Civic society is foreign to it, another system whose values the clan members understand and exploit but cannot share.

Certainly the Camorra wages war, but so does the state, both externally (in Iraq, for example) and implicitly through the police3. Certainly the clan bosses are rich but so is Berlusconi and his gang. Certainly the clans take care of their own and outsiders may be impoverished by their actions, but this is the actual modus operandi of the capitalist state anyway.

In Ireland too there is a tradition of hostility to the state and a suspicion of civic society. Explanations abound, the most popular drawing on post-colonial analyses. No doubt the same historical analysis has been applied to Naples which spent a great deal of its life ruled by Bourbons or the Kingdom of The Two Sicilies, or the Spanish Hapsburgs. As in Ireland, there is a tradition of popular resistance to the state; in 1647, for example, a popular revolt led by a poor fisherman known as Masaniello established a Neapolitan Republic as brief as a firefly’s light. As in Ireland, native cunning has led to the celebration of tax-evasion and the circumvention of building regulations, environmental directives, traffic regulation, city ordinances and other signs of government interference in the citizen’s right to make money. Coupled with a ferocious bureaucracy, an incompetent government, illegality even at ministerial level, not to say the recent dominance of Berlusconi, the whole makes for a mess of gargantuan proportions. As an Irishman who has lived through three corrupt administrations in a row I can sympathise. But Ireland has no Camorra, no Mafia, although like every country in the world it has criminal gangs.

In Naples the expression in nero, which means something like ‘invisible to the taxman’ is heard everywhere. The plasterer, the bicycle repair man, the day-labourer all work in nero when they can. The pleasure port too was largely constructed in nero, a portion of its takings would eventually be in nero and its staff would be paid partly in nero. I once remarked to a shop-keeper that Naples was a wonderful city and she replied that it was a nice place to visit but a very hard place to live. And that was before the arrival of ‘a munezz’ – the rubbish, or what the media calls, with admirable simplicity and ignorance ‘the rubbish strike’. But in a country where the government itself is self-evidently corrupt, to the point where the billionaire prime minister has to pass laws to grant himself immunity from prosecution for corruption, and where, conversely, the poor are so poor that nothing they can do in their lives will ever place them out of reach of criminality, there is no ethical calculus that can put the values of civic society above those of the social system of the clans and their neighbourhoods. Quite simply, it makes sense, if you live in Secondigliano to belong to the Secondigliano System and not the Government System.

In short, the System is justified by the State. This is not to paint the Camorra as some kind of quasi-utopian society, but rather to characterise the state as quasi-criminal. Most ordinary Italians, especially but not exclusively those of the left, are convulsed by shame, anger and revulsion at this cankerous growth within which they must go about their daily lives. Saviano, in writing this book in the way he has chosen to write it, is articulating exactly this complex reaction which includes a revulsion at the Camorra but also at the state.


The opening gambit of Gomorrah belongs to a horror film. A container being loaded onto a ship in the port of Naples opens and disgorges dozens of dead Chinese. The crane-driver returns the container to the ground and dozens of people emerge from hiding and stuff the corpses back inside. The dead Chinese are going home, and at the same time 70% of the textile product of China is coming in – even though for tax purposes it’s only 20%. The trade in death and, in a sense, in garbage disposal, since the Chinese labourers who have saved all their lives to be buried at home count for nothing more among the gangs of Naples, is neatly coupled with the commodities market. The book proceeds with chapters devoted to aspects of the business – textile, fashion,cement, drugs, rubbish – the whole bound up in a narrative which is part fiction part memoir.

This unusual structure where fiction carries the same freight as memoir and vice-versa, or rather where no distinction is made, is discussed on the Wu Ming website4 in the context of a brief survey of certain recent Italian texts. Much of what Wu Ming has to say is outside the scope of the article, but he proposes the term New Italian Epic, which I find useful. This new form has among its main characteristics, ‘An ethical commitment to writing’, ‘a sense of political necessity,’ and ‘a way of blending fiction and non-fiction that’s different from the ones we’ve gotten used to (e.g. Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘gonzo journalism’), a manner that I dare describe as “distinctly Italian”, which produces “unidentified narrative objects”.’ On all counts, as well as others I haven’t quoted, Saviano’s book fits the bill. Here we have a writer whose ethical and political commitment has made him a marked man for one of the most dangerous and far-reaching criminal conspiracies in the world, and who recently announced that, having led a fugitive life, moving from one police barracks to another in the guard of a specialist team of Carabinieri officers, he finally must leave his beloved Naples and Italy because he wants to be able to ‘drink a beer in public, go to a bookshop and choose a book after browsing the back cover’5. The narrator of Gomorrah is a character who has grown up in the clan districts and has the entree to various low-level operatives. He is also a journalist who can speed to the site of the latest murder often before the police or the ambulances. A friend of his, a book-keeper, falls in love with the Kalashnikov rifle and goes on a tour of Russia and former Eastern Bloc countries before meeting with Kalashnikov himself. He brings signed cards home. The preparation for this anti-odyssey is a prolonged paean to the murderous qualities of AK47. There is another beautiful section on the nicknames chosen for Clan members – the eel, the club, the little finger, the angel – it could be a medieval bestiary. Elsewhere the narrator meets his father and his second family in Rome at the time of the death of Pope John Paul II. Much of this is both possible and impossible, fiction and fact at the same time. It raises the question of the truth of fiction and answers by saying that the work creates its own reality which is as true to the world as any other description of it. This is what Wu Ming means when he says: ‘Every act of literary and artistic creation, every work of art, every novel bears the signs of what happens around, in [one] way or another’.

This is no Godfather. Saviano avoids glorifying the activities of the Camorra. There are no dons who love opera, no soulful sons who would like to go straight but can’t. Saviano describes in brutal detail exactly what goes on. Among the images that will never leave me is that of the young couple, addicts, hired to test a new cutting compound for cocaine. The man, known as a Visitor, injects first and dies. The woman weeps and tries to revive him. The man who tested the drug phones his boss to report that the compound doesn’t work and then leaves. Saviano reports two boys discussing how they would like to be shot: ‘The head’s better because you won’t piss yourself or shit your pants. No flailing around on the ground for half an hour.’ He reports Giuseppe Gala, member of the Nuvoletta clan, a rep extraordinaire in the food business – representing food-giant Parmalat among others – and extortionist, boasting to someone on a wiretap that he had burned them all, that he was the greatest. When he tried to become the exclusive rep for the drug market the Nuvoletta clan burned him alive. The Camorra, he tells us, is not obsessed by truces like the Sicilian Mafia. For them death is a marketing tool like any other. As is poverty. The poverty of Naples is the only guarantee that the Camorra will always have soldiers. The only solution, if there is a solution, is solve the poverty problem. The Camorra, on the other hand, see Saviano as the problem. They have promised to kill him by Christmas.

In Italy recently I remarked to some fellow writers that Saviano was a kind of saint. There were nods of agreement and one word, ‘Verissimo’ – too true. That ‘verissimo’ drew attention to the manifold and unintentional irony in what I had said.

Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano is published in the UK by Pan Macmillan

William Wall is an Irish novelist and poet. His novels include This is the country, Alice Falling, and The Map of tenderness. His website is


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