Jean Cocteau once wrote that ‘the poet does not invent, he listens’ in order to tell a story. But is there an art to this? Robert Saviano recently argued that he tells stories about Italian Mafias because he constantly seeks to raise awareness to fight them more effectively and he has succeeded extremely well in that. But do his stories always have to be so dark and uber-naturalistic for his message to attract a mass audience? No.
There are many examples of Camorra stories which include different voices, registers, and tones. In Francesco Rosi’s film ‘Le Mani sulla Città’, there is a scene where during a council meeting, the councillors put their hands up and shout ‘our hands are clean, we have got clean hands’, implying that they are not involved in corruption. This one single act summarises the story of corruption which Rosi is trying to tell. More recently, in the Neapolitan Mafia musical, ‘Ammore e Malavita’, the Camorra is portrayed with humor as a harsh reality, but the love story between the Mafia hitman Ciro and Fatima, the witness-nurse, shows that alternatives to the Camorra life are possible, and we laugh at the couple’s attempt to escape it.
Like Sciascia, Roberto Saviano believes that ‘mafia stories are our defence against organized crime’. And there is no doubt that he is right about the importance of telling stories to help break down l’omertà, (the law of silence), disband traditional stereotypes and introduce a dose of reality. As part of my research for The Invisible Camorra, I too was keen to let the criminals have their say, and use their voices to explain their clan’s mobility around Europe. Adopting a bottom-up, insider’s perspective of the many camorristi who travelled across Europe, I was able to trace their presence and activities in the UK, France, Spain, Germany, and the Netherlands. This allowed me to get a taste of their thinking but at the same time, a better-informed overview of their rationale and consequent actions. By using their language, I became fascinated by their mind-set, their choices and acts, which forced me to go beyond the obvious scenarios.
However, I soon realized that it would have been simplistic to leave this one-sided view of their behaviour unchallenged. I too needed to listen to other individuals, those in the wider community and context. After all, criminals do not exist in a vacuum; they act and think in relation to their civil society, the economy and politics and as a researcher interested in un-packaging the complexities of this criminal phenomenon, it was necessary for me to give a voice to all the actors involved. Therefore, I collected the stories of the camorristi, but also of all those who interacted with them (police officers, anti-mafia judges, expert observers, and state witnesses). This helped me produce a multi-dimensional, multi-layered story.
Saviano argues that in his creative non-fiction, the key is to allow the criminal’s point of view to frame the story. He wants to show these camorristi as they are, and he suggests that as a consequence of this, there are no positive characters in his stories. The result is a very bleak and violent portrayal of the Camorra today: young and old camorristi jetting around Naples city and Campania to conquer territory, business deals, and political favours. Like in Kafka’s novels, Saviano’s convincing description of the Neapolitan underworld as lived by his criminals, is one where you cannot breathe, where there is no hope nor escape route.
But, would positive characters in his stories have detracted from his fast tempo and gripping account? Yes, I believe they would have made a difference, and they would have made Saviano’s incomplete stories complete. Different and varied non-criminal voices would have added to the intricate detail, the harsh reality, and the gruesomeness of Camorra lives and business. It would have put his stories in context and not left them isolated. As story tellers of the mafia, it is our responsibility to produce complete accounts of this complex phenomenon. In this way, we are not inventing but continuously listening attentively like Cocteau.
About the author of this blog post: Felia Allum is senior lecturer in Politics and Italian at the University of Bath. She is author of the The Invisible Camorra (Cornell University Press, 2016). From September 2018, she is a Leverhulme Major Research Fellow.