Heaven and Hell in Campania

Despite the beauty of Southern Italy, a book studying the Camorra shows it is a place of contradictions

Sitting at the back of the stands, watching the Davis Cup in Naples, the view behind is the same as the paintings in every restaurant of the city. Beyond the red “clay” and the body of Italian fans is Vesuvius. To the right of the volcano are the mountains and towns of the Amalfi peninsula. Even further along, beyond the seats reserved for officials and club members, is the blue Mediterranean and the outline of Capri. To the left, edging the sea and stretching up the mountain slopes, is the city. The paintings show the view of the 18th century, but now cruise liners and container ships have replaced the sailing boats and the mountain no longer emits smoke — the last puff was spotted in 1943. And, of course, the city spreads much further round the bay and up into the mountains than it used to. There are now one million people in the city and another three million in the visible conurbation.

The match runs three days and on the last the British supporters are enjoying being fed delicious homemade delicacies by the the Italians around them. It raises the question: is there anywhere else you would rather be?

In the far South of Campania, in a fishing village where the coast is its furthest distancefrom the autostrada, the restaurateur is pressing us to try the different fish he picked up at the harbour when the boats returned at six o’clock. As well as the amuses-bouche (there is no Italian for this) his brother has concocted in the kitchen. We pay for two courses, but eat about five. He flatters me, as Italians often do: I not only look Italian (considered a good thing), but sound Italian. Here, I must explain, as the restaurateur flatters to ingratiate, my language skills flatter to deceive. My Italian is limited and very rusty. Before I was born my father, as a language graduate in the Eighth Army, was sent on an intensive Italian course so that he could liaise and interrogate. Therefore on family visits to Italy I was able to listen and learn from him. So I sound OK, much better than my Spanish — despite my many lessons. My star moment on this trip was at Herculaneum when a group of boys addressed me in English and I replied in Italian; one of them turned away convinced I was lying about being English and muttered “E Italiano”. However, I have great difficulty in reading serious Italian prose and my strongest conversation topics are food and football.

Italy is a lovely place. Shakespeare set 15 of his plays in the country. Even during his time there were complaints about “Italianate Englishmen” who banged on about how you hadn’t really lived unless you’d been to Italy: the infatuation has been going on for at least 500 years. In my case, it was love at first sight. Before any of the Alpine tunnels were opened, my parents drove to Italy up the Mont Cenis pass. Up among the flowery meadows we hit the small Italian border post. It was manned by a single officer, handsome, if a trifle fat, in a grey uniform with a cap at a rakish angle. He was standing in the middle of the road and singing. We waited until he finished and then he welcomed us to Italy. I often think of him these days as I ski down the road, now Europe’s longest run. However, it is not all beautiful scenery and welcoming locals. In Campania, there are times when a group of young men will approach a tourist group and will spit at the women to provoke the men of the party. When you are forced to respond they will beat the crap out of you, this is to demonstrate that they have the right kind of stuff to be Camorra enforcers. The Camorra is a mafia-type criminal organisation found in Campania. If these men graduate into a Camorra clan apparently they will learn to stuff a person’s mouth with explosives to blow your head off or, if they want information, they have been said to slowly beat people with spiked clubs. There is, apparently, no shortage of young men wanting to work for the Camorra clans. They explain that they would rather die young having been feared, than live to a ripe old age by holding down a boring and servile job.

Of course, I have no personal experience of any of this: I am entirely dependent on the investigative journalist Roberto Saviano’s book, Gomorrah. Originally published in 2006, it is an exposé of Camorra activities. The publication of the book meant he now needs three bodyguards and was condemned by Silvio Berlusconi for libelling Italy. According to his account, the Camorra are five times the economic power than the Sicilian Mafia. Thus his title, based on the angry remark of a friend: we all know about the Mafia, just as we all know what they did in Sodom, but what do they do in Gomorrah?The Camorra long ago lost interest in the cigarette trade and even drugs can now be sub-contracted. Now they control the port of Naples and the real money is in fake fashion, toxic waste disposal and construction. According to Saviano, by far the greatest harm the Camorra do is in the cheap-rate dumping of toxic substances from all over Europe onto sites in Campania, with disastrous effects on health in many poorer areas. He lists a whole host of terrorist organisations, including ETA, the IRA and the Red Brigades, whose direct murder victims added up do not come close to those of the Camorra; this does not, of course, include the collateral damage of toxic waste. 

The murder figures are shocking. Campania has the highest murder rate in Italy — just under 50 people per million per annum — about the same as the US, four times that of the United kingdom, five times that of Italy as a whole. Looking at these figures its as if nearly all the murders in Campania are Camorra-related. Some speculate that that the clans also kill a number of Chinese labourers they have imported and African pedlars they have sub-contracted, which don’t appear in any statistics. Indeed, there is a disturbing episode at the beginning of Gomorrah: when a container is opened and Chinese bodies spill out. There is a very visible presence of South Asians in Naples, not mentioned by Saviano. I talked to some, but didn’t dare raise the question of how they had got there.The book makes you look at Campania in a whole new way. Take, for example, the pair of buskers below our hotel room, on the causeway from the lungomare to the Castello dell’Ovo, a very popular tourist spot. They are terrible, badly recycling Neapolitan and global favourites on a fairly short loop. But strangely they have no rivals.  At a much higher musical level we went to the opera, in the magnificent Teatro San Carlo, the world’s oldest opera house. We saw Otello — the Verdi rather than the Bellini (which was actually premiered there). There were two intervals of 20 minutes when the audience repaired to a vast assembly room to drink champagne, network and be seen. Bourgeois elegance in profuse and extreme form. But I wondered, how many were Camorra connected?

And how many connected with the various anti-Mafia agencies? And how many both? A Californian tourist, walking behind us at Pompeii, remarked, “this place is bi-polar”. He was actually talking about the weather, a sunshine/shower sequence much more familiar to the English than the Californians. But he could easily have been talking about Italian life as a whole. Years ago in Verona on the same unlucky day we were robbed and our car broke down. Innocenti mended the car immediately, offering excellent coffee and chatting about football while we waited. Yet when I arrived at Carabinieri HQ to report the robbery they were extremely unhelpful, grumpy and had obviously been sleeping.

Even in the late Seventies it was the same: I was visiting a jumpy Turin, bristling with guns after seven people had died in a battle with the Red Brigades. A few hours later and I was in a small town outside the city where people were chatting in the sun and grandfathers were eating ice creams with their grandchildren. It could not have been more relaxed. Then this year at Naples Airport baggage pick-up and security were the quickest and most efficient I have seen anywhere. Ditto, the system for picking up taxis. But then you are plunged into Neapolitan traffic: slow progress, appalling and aggressive driving and the city covered in the most amount of graffiti I have ever seen. Even my reading list reflected this contrasting nature. Gomorrah is a nasty book — the subject matter rather than the author, though he does seem to relish his subject at times. Helen Attlee’s The Land Where Lemons Grow (2014) the opposite, a nice book, an account of Italian gardening, the cult of the citron in all its varieties, especially in Campania. I bought one of the giant ibridi citrons and ate it marinated in sugar as instructed: unusual and delicious.

A version of the “parachute question” I used to ask myself as a much younger travel writer: are the problems of Naples and Campania easily detected by the uninformed traveller? Would you know something was wrong without being told? Saviano thinks the worst problem is the toxic waste which has poisoned lives and, in some areas, sent cancer rates soaring. But I don’t think you would know this as a tourist: we ate and drank in Campania for two weeks without ill effects. On the other hand, the over-development is obvious and appalling. Most tourists see this in the filthy sprawl around Pompeii, which looks more like an Asian urban area than a European one. (Scotch any middle-class English myth that the Italians have natural good taste in visual matters!) But the place that hit me hardest was Battipaglia. Half a century ago I was stuck as a hitcher in the town, it was a nice and old area that would have served very well in one of the Old Country scenes in The Godfather. Now it is an enormous sprawl of grotty apartments, tacky villas and vast, oversized shopping malls. I can’t think of anywhere in England that has gone so downhill so quickly. The Camorra love their cement.

And so, you love this girl: Italia. Always have done, really. She remains striking in looks (if a little deteriorated, but aren’t we all?) and charming in manner. But you can’t trust her an inch. You mustn’t get too close to her.
This metaphor has a serious point: Saviano points to a dangerous spread of Camorra influence internationally. For example, there is a surprisingly strong presence in Aberdeen, although the Camorra tends use Scotland as a base for its legitimate activities. It is important to see that, though the European Union isn’t actually a Mafia/Camorra front organisation, in a way it is functioning as if it were. For one, the EU has removed many barriers to the Camorra’s expansion. Even the German press is already claiming that Mafia influence can be detected all over the German economy. In integrating the utterly corrupt with the less corrupt, the lowest common denominator has held sway. Good fences make good neighbours — especially when the girl on the other side of the fence is jolly attractive.

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