The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Roberto Saviano's GOMORRAH is a nice remedy for the current American fascination with the Mafia, and especially its teddy-bear de Niro and Gandolfini faces. In the book, which was a very big hit in Italy, Saviano spews out what he knows about the Camorra, the Neapolitan organized-crime system that calls itself "the system" and that Saviano calls "the clans." "The system" is both petty and unimaginably powerful, he asserts, and it controls not only picturesque old central Naples but also the hideously ugly and inhumane suburbs that sprawl through the Campania region. While Saviano's book is in no way systematic, it is quite well-informed, and like an amateurish Eric Schlosser Saviano examines not just the public face of The System but its hidden tendrils--the ways that it has facilitated the commerce in drugs, guns, sex workers/slaves, and all kinds of other contraband from Eastern Europe to Western Europe. (Unlike Schlosser, though, Saviano has written a book more like the angry rants of a man who knows an enormous amount and just needs to UNLOAD and less like the systematic storytelling-as-argument of which Schlosser is a master.) The System, though, is also benefiting from and expediting the rapid expansion of the global market for Chinese-manufactured items. Controlling the Port of Naples, through which a significant percentage of Chinese exports enter Europe, the System is able to "tax" these transactions, bring contraband in, evade taxation, and enable the distribution of counterfeit goods (such as "Made In Italy"-labeled apparel).

What's certainly earned Saviano the anger of the System is his happiness in gossiping about the crimes of the Camorristi: the murders and gang wars, the beat-downs, the extortion. He names names, gleefully. He grew up in these godforsaken towns north of Naples, managed not to get sucked into the System or to emigrate to northern Italy, and he wants the world to know what it's like to live here, in this fundamentally dysfunctional political and social system.

The book isn't systematic, but it doesn't try to be, and thus can't really be faulted. But the choices made by the translator--Virginia Jewiss--are unforgivable. I know that journalistic Italian works differently than journalistic English, and that the sentence fragment is acceptable. But Jewiss has decided to translate this almost word-for-word, apparently. The prose is abysmal, with sentence fragments in almost every paragraph. Look, I realize that that's Saviano's voice: angry, conversational, pointed. But, as I tell my students, this choice JUST DOESN'T WORK in this forum. A few fragments might have gotten the tone across; the thousands that we do get just make the book seem sloppy and underscore the impression that it was written in six caffeine-fueled nights.



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