The Piranhas by Roberto Saviano

Review published on September 6, 2018.

The Piranhas is the first novel by one of the world’s leading experts on the mafia and it’s every bit as explosive as you might expect. This is a hard-hitting novel, but don’t shy away, this is a story you need to read. You might think you know the mafia from any number of decent thrillers but this tale of the Naples underworld will blow your mind. It’s a like a punch to the gut – genuinely scary. The Piranhas is a tragic story, desperate and devastating. The thing that makes it all the more potent is that it’s based on the real situation on the ground in the Forcella district of the city. Saviano both shocks and mesmerises as this tragic tale unfolds. It’s a heart breaking tale and a salutary lesson.

It’s not often an author is forced to live under police protection but Gomorrah, published in Italy in 2006, so angered the Camorra that they issued death threats against Saviano. It was an exposé of the Naples Mafia, their influence on the state and violent culture. The Camorra exercised control of construction, drugs, prostitution, the fashion industry and even toxic waste dumping. Now Saviano has revisited the Naples crime scene for a fictional look at the generation of gangsters who followed on from the men who ran the city in the era of Gomorrah. These gangsters are young. Of course, the mafia always used young children, known as muschilli (little mosquitos), to run errands but this is the story of how the gangs of juveniles and adolescents took over the streets and the drug trade. This is the dirty reality not the myth.

Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola have a lot to answer for with their mid-70s creation The Godfather. It’s a wonderful film but also helped to foster a terrible romantic myth. The view of the mafia as an honourable society; glamorous and sexy. It’s a dangerous lie that even the kids on the streets buy into. From this novel you can tell that Saviano loves his city but he isn’t blinded to the pain and suffering of the people. The brutality and madness are reflected in this story.

Which is the most corrupt country in the world? Italy, Greece, Kyrgyzstan? Saviano has no doubt that it is Britain. London is the “dirtiest capital in the world”, where the South American drug money and the billions filtered out of Russia are laundered and legitimised. It’s a sobering thought because we pride ourselves on our political and judicial honesty but if Saviano is right we have a part in this tragedy. In Italy corruption manifests itself in every aspect of life, the mafia grip on society is visible, nowhere more so than Naples.

The Piranhas opens with what would normally be a playground dispute. Nicolas is angry with Renatino for ‘liking’ the comments his girlfriend Letizia makes online. The episode that follows leaves you in no doubt of the capability for crude and brutal violence in the gang Nicolas leads. It’s also a sign of their immaturity and child-like perspectives. This is the Forcella, an estate on the outskirts of Naples, a bleak post-industrial monstrosity that could be lifted from any dystopian future but is in fact home to a poor community in thrall to the gangsters. The place is owned by the Camorra, the Neapolitan mafia, their ranks are depleted, dead or in jail, so they are looking for new blood. Copacabana turns to Nicolas and his brother Agostino, he gives them hash to sell. They get their friends involved, the boys are on a percentage of their sales: “only children, but children with balls”. Nicolas’ gang hang around outside the New Maharaja club, they are too young to drink. Agostino and Nicolas are soon selling product across the city, filling in for the families when dealers are lifted or killed. Soon they get guns, they rob a tobacconist, relishing the violence, taking money but also stripping the store. They are filling the crime vacuum. As they develop their business, the gang learn to pay off the police, set the price for drugs on the street, and even money laundering. You have to be a “fucker or get fucked”, it’s the law of the new jungle. As they grow in power so does the violence. The only thing for sure is that it can’t end well. By the time Saviano interviewed some of the children in jail when researching this novel the majority of their friends were already dead. This portrait of children becoming gangsters is a really powerful insight into a world most of us struggle to understand.

Saviano’s debut crime novel (he has written short stories before) pulls no punches. This is a excoriating social critique. Naples is a city you could weep tears for but Saviano makes the point that The Piranhas is not about showing Naples to the world, it’s about showing the world in Naples. Reflect on the youth in The Piranhas; the lives of the young people caught up in and instigating violence – think about the lack of opportunities or role models. Then look to our own problems on the streets of London, (barring scale, there must be lessons that could be learned). The Piranhas gives us all pause for thought.

The novel is expertly translated in a way that conveys the quiet anger of the story by Anthony Shugaar. I hope that Saviano continues to write fiction. His style is slightly journalistic but totally gripping. I won’t forget this novel any time soon!

Paul Burke 5/5

The Piranhas by Roberto Saviano
Picador 9781509879212 hbk Sep 2018

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